A win to the Max

Pistons run preseason record to 2-0

Jason Maxiell made a case for more playing time with a solid performance against Minnesota.
Rocky Widner (NBAE/Getty)
There are three overriding themes to the Pistons’ preseason: How Nazr Mohammed blends with the four holdover starters in Ben Wallace’s stead; how the Pistons take to the zone defense; and how their bench develops.

It was Meatloaf – a perfectly good reference point when you’re playing a game in the home of Omaha Steaks – who once warbled that two out of three ain’t bad.

In limited opportunities, Mohammed didn’t do much either way to give hints as to how he’ll factor, but the bench and the zone both provided evidence they’ll be net assets as the Pistons beat Minnesota 101-96 in Omaha, NE, on Friday night, Detroit running its preseason record to 2-0.

The game was essentially won midway through the fourth quarter when Lindsey Hunter led a bench-fueled 11-0 run, starting it with a 3-pointer and extending it with several characteristic defensive highlights that led to transition points.

When the Pistons talk about making greater use of their bench this season, they’re primarily talking about two guys: Carlos Delfino and Flip Murray. Antonio McDyess and Hunter are the staples – the only two players Flip Saunders really trusted as last season unfolded, and Hunter’s is a niche role that won’t provide enough minutes consistently to give Chauncey Billups proper rest all by itself.

So Delfino and Murray are critical to the Pistons’ success – both of them expected to back up at two of the three perimeter positions, Murray both guard spots and Delfino behind Tayshaun Prince and Rip Hamilton – and both have exhibited largely promising signs through two games.

On consecutive possessions to end the first quarter and start the second, Murray scored baskets and drew fouls with spectacular one-on-one moves, the first climaxing in a pull-up bank shot and the second a crossover to lose Bracey Wright punctuated by a get-off-your-seat dunk over Marko Jaric. Late in the third, Murray hit a deep jumper with the defense in his face. Their lead cut to two with a little more than one minute to go, Murray again created a shot for himself with an ankle-snapping crossover and buried a baseline jumper.

The wild card is Jason Maxiell, currently No. 10 in what Saunders said is probably going to be a nine-man rotation. The guy the Pistons call Max lobbied hard for inclusion in the rotation Friday night, bulling inside for points and running the floor unusually well for a power player to create scoring chances for himself. Maxiell, who finished with 16 points on 7 of 9 shooting to go with three rebounds plus three blocked shots and a steal, has a knack for spotting a scoring chance in transition, exemplified by his fourth-quarter dunk when Hunter spotted him trailing the fast break in a perfect spot.

“Tonight was more about coming in and playing hard and letting ’Sheed and Dice take the night off,” Maxiell said. “I’m a young guy. I come in with energy, come in and rebound and make my own play.”

“It was good to see the young guys play well,” Saunders said. “Jason played well, Flip Murray played well, Lindsey, of course, made some plays.”

The Pistons’ expected greater reliance on the zone defense got a nudge in the right direction when Saunders switched out of the man-to-man midway through the first quarter after the Timberwolves scorched the Pistons for 20 points in the first six minutes. The Pistons managed to stay in the game because their offense was nearly as efficient as Minnesota’s. Both teams, in fact, finished the first quarter shooting at a 59 percent clip. There were instances, however, when poor communication within the zone was exploited by Minnesota for wide-open perimeter shots.

The Pistons felt the effects of the NBA’s emphasis on decorum this season as both Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess were slapped with technical fouls for little apparent reason in the first half. Players are hoping officials are being deliberately quick-whistled in the preseason to send a message while planning all along to back off to a more reasonable level of tolerance once the regular season begins, but nobody knows for certain how this will play out.

Despite the usual limited minutes of preseason, Wallace – who spent most of his minutes guarding T-Wolves star Kevin Garnett – had to take a seat with more than five minutes left in the third quarter after getting hit with his fifth foul, never returning. For all the fretting over the effects of Ben Wallace’s free-agent departure, the most underplayed aspect of his loss is the greater exposure to foul trouble risked by Rasheed Wallace, who will now be guarding the go-to players Ben Wallace once checked. Antonio McDyess had also accumulated his fourth foul before the third quarter ended and picked up his fifth early in the fourth.

The good news out of all of that is the game Jason Maxiell gave the Pistons in Omaha – an Omaha stake for playing time.