Focus on Defense

After Pistons springs leaks, Cheeks devotes entire practice to tightening up D

Pistons Defense
The Pistons look to strengthen their defense.
Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)
SAN FRANCISCO – Maurice Cheeks wouldn’t tip his hand after Thursday’s practice as to potential lineup changes he said would be considered after the Pistons lost to Golden State on Tuesday. But he was perfectly willing to discuss the focal point of practice: defense.

“The whole practice,” he said. “You’re working on offense when you’re working on defense, but it was mostly trying to get out defense back intact.”

The Pistons have played a tougher schedule than 28 other NBA teams, based on winning percentage, and during their four-game losing streak they’ve played three worthy title contenders and teams mostly known for their offensive potency. Over those last four games, the Pistons have played teams with a cumulative winning percentage of .774. Aside from their most recent loss, an 18-point outcome, they’ve been competitive in every game despite their 2-5 record.

But Cheeks is acutely aware that the Pistons have to play much stiffer defense than they’ve played of late, particularly in the past three games when they’ve given up 113, 109 and 119 points. In the first two games of their current four-game road trip, both Portland (.512) and Golden State (.609) have made better than half their shots.

“We emphasized pick and rolls – side pick and rolls, high pick and rolls – and trying to do a better job of getting our communication down,” Cheeks said. “I thought our communication wasn’t where it should have been the last couple of games and just keeping people out of the paint a little bit more. One of our problems has been guys getting inside our paint, so we spent a little more time on trying to focus on the ball staying out of the paint and guarding pick and roll.”

In the Portland and Golden State losses, the Pistons might have become too conscious of guarding the 3-point line once the Trail Blazers knocked down six in Monday’s first quarter. Since then, they’ve been burned too often inside as defenders scramble to recover out of rotations. In many cases, the player scoring has been freed when his defender left to help a teammate. But it’s not as simple as just sticking with your man, Cheeks said.

“You can’t play five on five. No one plays the game like that,” he said. “There’s always some screens, some pick and rolls, some flares somewhere that’s going to allow someone else to have to their their guy. There’s always going to be somebody else that’s going to have to help and somebody else is going to have to help him. That’s just the way the NBA game is played.”

If there is a lineup change made, the likeliest spot will be at shooting guard where Chauncey Billups has started all seven games but has played just 20 minutes over the past two games. He left after seven minutes in each half in Portland without re-entering the game – though Cheeks said afterward he tried to get Billups back in Monday’s second half but at the dead ball when he was at the scorer’s table to go on for Rodney Stuckey, Stuckey had to participate in a jump ball – and didn’t play after a 5:40 stint in Monday’s first quarter.

But the lineup change might be necessitated by injury. After Tuesday’s game, Cheeks said Billups had a sore knee and he sat out Thursday’s practice on the campus of San Francisco State with knee tendinitis. Cheeks said he was day to day and wasn’t sure who would start if Billups is unavailable – or even if he is.

“I don’t know yet,” he said. “Not sure.”

One thing he’s pretty certain about: It would be nice to beat Sacramento, which owns the same 2-5 record as the Pistons but is coming off a 21-point dismantling of the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday. For Friday’s game, to be televised by ESPN, the Kings are aiming to establish a Guinness Book of World Records mark for loudest crowd noise at an indoor arena.

“We just need to get a win,” Cheeks said. “That’s the bottom line.”