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Back-to-back losses sends Pistons scrambling for answers the morning after

Maurice Cheeks
Maurice Cheeks called practice after back-to-back losses.
Ron Hoskins (NBAE/Getty)

When a team loses by a basket or two, it’s usually easy to pinpoint a shortcoming, or at least to rationalize a loss by saying, “If only we had been better in Category X, we would have won that game.”

When it loses so thoroughly that fourth quarters are played faster than first quarters and coaches take multiple timeouts with them to the locker room, you can throw darts at a board and hit on something that needs fixing.

So it was for the Pistons over the weekend in lopsided losses at Orlando and Washington, two sub-.500 Eastern Conference rivals. And that explains why Mo Cheeks took the unusual step of calling the team together for a Sunday practice after a back-to-back set of games, the second time this season he’s felt so compelled.

“We haven’t really had a lot of practice time,” Cheeks said after practice. “We needed some practice time on the floor. We needed that. We have a breakfast meeting, go to a game, don’t have a shootaround … we’ve never really had any practice time. This is not conventional, to have a practice now, but we needed to have it.”

The Pistons have played 32 games, three more than the average of the 14 other Eastern Conference teams, and they’ve already played eight sets of back-to-back games, including six in December alone. For a team with so many new moving parts, the lack of practice time has been particularly damaging.

“We had a good practice,” said Josh Smith, who didn’t play in Saturday night’s second half when Cheeks shook up the lineup to try to find something that clicked. “It’s not normal that on back to backs we have practices, but it was beneficial for everybody.”

Smith said the focus of practice was on defensive help, trusting that if someone leaves his man to help out, there will be someone behind him to cover his vacated spot. The Detroit offense had its share of issues in the weekend losses, but the Pistons fell behind early in both games and never could reverse momentum because they couldn’t string defensive stops together.

Only once in the first three quarters of each weekend blowout loss did the Pistons hold the opposition under 50 percent from the field and that was the third quarter of the Washington game, when the Wizards – already up by 21 at halftime – still hit 45 percent.

Orlando shot 58, 55 and 57 percent through three quarters, by which time it had the win all but secured. Washington shot 52 and 63 percent in the first two quarters to build its runaway lead.

That followed Monday’s win at Cleveland, where the Pistons were razor sharp at both ends and held the Cavs to quarters of 27, 25, 42 and 31 percent. Game-to-game swings aren’t unusual, but the Pistons seem to experience them with dizzying frequency.

“That’s just been the inconsistency of our team so far,” Smith said. “We have a good stretch where we win three, four in a row and then we’ll have two bad ones. We can’t be afraid of success. We can’t be afraid of being on the gear and teams getting geared up to play us. We have to be a team that wants to be sought after and wants to be respected in this league.

“Talent is all across the board. You can look at it on the roster sheet. We are a talented basketball club, but there’s a lot of talented teams out there that don’t put it all together and don’t utilize their maximum potential. We have the ability to do that. We just have to believe that and have that confidence and swagger that we’re an elite team.”

It won’t take the Pistons long to see if their unplanned Sunday practice steers them back on the right course. It’ll be a controlled study, too, with Washington – the team that never trailed and led by as many as 28 on Saturday – coming to The Palace to finish off the 2013 portion of the schedule.

If there was a ray of sunshine to the day, it came with the news that Rodney Stuckey – who played limited minutes in both weekend losses as the shoulder injury that caused him to miss two games earlier this month flared up – underwent an MRI that revealed no structural damage. The Pistons get a rare five-day break with no games after hosting the Wizards on Monday, giving Stuckey plenty of time to rest the shoulder – and the Pistons plenty of precious practice time.