Unhappy Homecoming

Pistons lose in Smith, KCP’s return to Georgia as offense sputters


The story of the game in Pistons red, white and blue

WHITE HOT – The Pistons recovered from a stumbling start to lead by four in the third quarter, but when they went cold – four straight possessions without a point – Atlanta got hot, hitting three straight triples by DeMarre Carroll, Kyle Korver and Lou Williams. The Pistons never led again, though they were tied at 66 early in the fourth quarter before Atlanta pulled away for a 93-85 win. Rodney Stuckey, one night after scoring 21 points off the bench to lead the Pistons over New York, gave the Pistons life when he entered midway through the first quarter and finished with 18. Brandon Jennings led the Pistons with 19 after having just 2 points until an eight-point outburst in the final two minutes of the first half. Andre Drummond recorded his sixth straight double-double with 10 points, 12 rebounds and four steals.

BLUE COLLAR – DeMarre Carroll isn’t exactly replacing Josh Smith in Atlanta’s lineup. He’s the small forward and Smith mostly played power forward for the Hawks, which is now the province of free-agent signee Paul Millsap. They combined to do some damage against the Pistons, Millsap scoring 19 points and Carroll filling up the stat sheet as Smith usually does with 11 points, 12 boards, three assists, two steals and two blocks.

RED FLAG – The Pistons struggled with the second night of a back-to-back set for the second time in a week. Last week, they fell behind by 19 points in the first quarter at Golden State and lost without really challenging for the only time this season. But Golden State had been off the night before. Atlanta had no real advantage, other than being at home, because the Hawks played (at Miami) and traveled just as the Pistons did on Tuesday. The Pistons started 1 of 9 and seemed a half-step slow to the ball for much of the night. They’ll need to pick it up on back to backs – they have 18 more such sets this season.

The Pistons have a return date in Atlanta on Jan. 29. Maybe next time, native Georgians Josh Smith and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will be able to take a deep breath, relax and not squeeze the basketball quite so hard.

Smith, who grew up in Atlanta and spent his first nine NBA seasons there before signing with the Pistons as a free agent last summer, and Caldwell-Pope, who grew up about an hour southwest of Atlanta and played his college basketball in nearby Athens, combined to shoot 6 of 24 against the Hawks and missed all 10 of their 3-point tries as the Pistons lost 93-85 Wednesday.

“It was a little different, but I’m glad I got this one under my belt,” Smith said. “Now we can move on and just focus on basketball.”

It was the kind of game begging to be won but for the want of one good run, one dominant defensive stand, one hot shooter. The Pistons could never find anything to hang their hat on aside from a brilliant second quarter from Rodney Stuckey, who scored 12 of his 18 points then and allowed the Pistons to recover from a dreadful offensive start. They made 1 of their first 9 shots, yet never trailed by more than seven points and actually took the lead in the second quarter behind Stuckey.

But, bottom line, the Pistons aren’t going to win many games when their frontcourt loses the production battle. Atlanta’s trio of Al Horford, Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll combined for 40 points and 20 boards, while Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond and Smith managed a mere 28 points and 22 rebounds. Continuing a season-long theme, the Hawks especially hurt the Pistons inside on pick-and-roll plays.

“It’s multiple things,” Monroe said. “I think we have to get better at guarding it with more than two people. We have to guard it with two people, but in this league there are going to be a lot of plays where they might beat two people and it’s our second line of defense that we have a little trouble with.”

“It was what I expected: a few cheers and some boos, but it’s all good.”

- Josh Smith on the Atlanta fans
Full game quotes

“We were trying to get a lot of stuff inside, didn’t get as much as we normally get inside and, really, that was the difference,” said Maurice Cheeks, ejected for his first time as Pistons coach when he picked up two technical fouls late in the game, presumably for arguing about two quick fouls on Stuckey, one at each end, that disqualified him. “They got some things inside and then their pick-and-roll offense started working. Once you start scoring inside, then you start pick and roll and they start working, it’s two-fold.”

Maybe a better example of how different this game was for the Pistons is that the trio of Monroe, Drummond and Smith combined to attempt only four free throws. Monroe, their primary post scoring threat, managed only eight shots from the field. Smith said he didn’t think he played out of character despite the hoopla surrounding his return and his 5 of 15 shooting, which included four missed 3-pointers.

“I was good,” he said. “I took the shots I normally take. Just they weren’t able to drop tonight.”

For all of that, they still led 57-53 midway through the third quarter when Brandon Jennings picked up the baton, doing almost all of his damage in the last two minutes of the first half and into the third quarter. But just when they looked ready to grind the Hawks under their heels, the Pistons committed two straight turnovers and got misses from Jennings and Monroe. The Hawks, meanwhile, tied the game at 57 and then hit three straight triples to take the lead. The Pistons tied the game at 66 early in the fourth quarter, but never led again.

Not for lack of creativity from Cheeks, again dealing with a shortened backcourt as Chauncey Billups missed his fourth straight game and Will Bynum his third straight. Charlie Villaneuva was also out, missing his second straight with a sore back.

Combined with foul trouble for Drummond and the effects of a back-to-back game, Cheeks had to get creative. He used Gigi Datome for 11 minutes, and while he hit two jump shots including a triple, Atlanta went to powerful inside players Mike Scott and Millsap whenever Datome was guarding them, a tough matchup for the Italian rookie. Cheeks also went to Peyton Siva for six first-half minutes and to Josh Harrellson for six second-half minutes. Harrellson, a more rugged defender than Datome, hit a 3-pointer late in the third quarter to pull the Pistons within two headed to the fourth.

“Greg needed a rest, Drummond was in foul trouble and they had a couple of big guys out there, so I had to use him,” Cheeks said. “I thought he did OK.”

Of course, the fact Cheeks had to scramble to little-used options speaks to the struggles of their night.

“We played in spurts tonight and we didn’t give energy for the full game,” Smith said. “That’s what we need to do in order to win on back-to-back games. We have to dig down a little deeper. We’ll be OK. It’s still a work in progress. We’ll be OK.”