Rough Return

Pistons come out of 5-day break flat and fall hard to Utah, rookie Burke


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

WHITE HOT – Utah closed the first half on a 12-3 run to take a 13-point halftime lead, then opened the second half on an 8-0 run to go ahead by 21 points as the Pistons lost 110-89 coming off of their second five-day schedule break in the last 19 days. Utah rookie Trey Burke, the Michigan All-American who carried the Wolverines to the NCAA title game, had plenty of Michigan fans in the stands as he recorded 20 points and 12 assists to lead the Jazz, who played without leading scorer Gordon Hayward. The Pistons fell to 16-23 overall and just 7-13 at home.

BLUE COLLAR – Rodney Stuckey dealt with a painful shoulder injury for the past month, missing five games over two stretches and playing through the injury in other games. But he declared himself back to full strength after the five-day break and looked true to his word, scoring 16 points in 11 first-half minutes and finishing with 21 to lead the Pistons. Stuckey attacked the basket with his pre-injury assertiveness and knocked down the mid-range jump shots that he’d hit with great accuracy in the season’s first month before he was afflicted with knee tendinitis.

RED FLAG – Utah isn’t one of the NBA’s more potent 3-point shooting teams, averaging just 6.5 makes per game. The Jazz topped that total before halftime with starting forwards Marvin Williams and Richard Jefferson victimizing them for two apiece in the first quarter. Utah’s 3-point barrage didn’t continue – the Jazz finished 9 of 22 – but the early perimeter lapses by the Pistons allowed the Jazz to stay in the game when the Pistons could have easily mounted a double-digits lead and put a struggling team on its heels. The Pistons led by six early and shot better than 50 percent for most of the first half until Utah’s late run, but never could pull away due to the Jazz’s 3-point proficiency.

Teams have limited control of the NBA scheduling process, providing the league availability and preferred dates for their arenas and letting the process unfold from there. The Pistons next season ought to limit their requests to one: no more five-day breaks.

They came out of their first one of the season on wobbly legs – getting outscored by an average of 16 points in third quarters of the first three games – before recovering to win back-to-back games heading into their second five-day break.

Vacation ended Friday and reality hit them as rudely as a polar vortex. The Utah Jazz, who carried a 13-27 record into The Palace, went on a 20-3 run that bridged halftime and romped to a 110-89 win on a Friday night when The Palace was filled with plenty of Trey Burke fans sporting University of Michigan maize and blue.

“We just couldn’t come out and compete,” said Rodney Stuckey, perhaps the lone bright spot for the Pistons with 21 points and a return to his pre-injury form. “I don’t know. I don’t get it. We had four days of good practice this week and we came out and laid a goose egg. That’s on us tonight.”

The Burke fans were the only ones who went home happy. The rookie started slowly but finished strong as the Jazz continued their mysterious mastery of the Pistons, who now hold a 32-55 all-time record – 1-15 more recently – vs. Utah that spans the generations. Burke, following in the chain of point guards from John Stockton to Deron Williams who established Utah’s superiority, led the Jazz with his first career 20 and 10 game, scoring 20 points to go with 12 assists.

But Burke did the bulk of his damage after Utah had taken a 21-point lead with an 8-0 run to start the second quarter. Grasping at straws, Mo Cheeks pulled Greg Monroe and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope barely two minutes into the second half, Josh Smith 30 seconds after that and Andre Drummond less than a minute later.

"We just couldn’t get into a good rhythm, get ourselves going and try to pull ourselves back."

- Andre Drummond on falling behind in the game
Full game quotes
“It’s unexplainable to me,” Cheeks said. “Maybe the days off affected us in terms of getting up and down the floor, continuing to play the way we had practiced for the last four days. Maybe it was we were off for so long.”

The Pistons actually started the game sharp offensively, scoring 25 points on 53 percent first-quarter shooting. But they still trailed by a bucket after leading by six five minutes into the game and losing the opportunity to lead by well more than that because of a recurring bugaboo: perimeter defense.

Utah ranks 16th in the NBA in 3-point percentage and much further down the list in attempts, tied for 25th. The Jazz average only 18 3-point attempts per game, but they shot 5 of 11 in the first quarter alone with forwards Marvin Williams and Richard Jefferson making two apiece.

“They made a couple of tough shots. If we were able to get out there and contest those 3-point shots, is it a different game? I don’t know,” Kyle Singler said. “But we’ve got to do a better job of at least getting out there and contesting those shots.”

“They made a lot of threes,” Cheeks said. “They kept making ’em, but we never ran them off the line.”

When the Pistons tailed off offensively late in the first half – they missed their last six shots and committed a turnover in a scoreless final 2:48 when they went from five points down to 13 – it seemed to buckle their knees defensively, too.

“It’s a domino effect,” said Drummond, who started the game with three first-quarter blocked shots but didn’t get another one for the game, finishing with 10 points and 13 rebounds. “When something doesn’t go right on one end of the floor, either offense or defense, it trickles over to the other side. We’ve got to be better. We can’t allow that. Even myself. I allow certain plays to get ahold of me and I allow them to get easy baskets. I’ve got to be better at that and be a better teammate to my guys.”

The Pistons are flirting with danger as their record fell to 16-23 overall. The Eastern Conference has been forgiving in the season’s early months, but a few teams that were well behind them – the Knicks and Nets, most notably – are gaining ground. The listless performance baffled the Pistons, who to a man felt they’d put in a superb week of work in practice and plugged some of the leaks that had led to the post-holiday tailspin.

“It’s frustrating, for sure,” Singler said. “With the break we had, you would think we’d come out with a little more energy and we wouldn’t have come out as flat as we did to start the game. We just didn’t have it. Whether we’ll get that back tomorrow, we don’t know. But we’ve got to start playing better.”

“It’s a little disappointing,” Drummond said. “We worked real hard this week, put a good effort in, and to come out like we did tonight, it’s like we took a step back. We’ve got to put this behind us, learn from it and get ready for tomorrow.”