Trumped in Toronto

Defense betrays Pistons as Raptors build 23-point lead, hang on

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

– The lopsided gap in production between the Detroit and Toronto backcourts in the first half set the stage for a 103-93 loss that sends the Pistons, who’d won seven of 10 after beating Boston at The Palace on Sunday, suddenly reeling into the All-Star break after losses to Cleveland and the Raptors. Toronto’s guards combined for 29 points and 16 assists in the first half, making 11 of 19 shots. Detroit’s guards combined for 12 points and 4 assists and shot 5 of 15. Toronto built a 14-point lead before halftime. DeMar DeRozan scored 16 of his 23 in the first half and Jose Calderon passed for nine of his 15 assists before halftime. Rodney Stuckey, brilliant in averaging 11.2 free throws per game over his last five, was strangely passive in a scoreless 18 minutes in which he shot twice and never got to the stripe. The Raptors led by 14 again after three quarters and stretched it to 23 before a 13-0 Pistons run made it interesting. They got as close as nine on a Brandon Knight triple with just under five minutes to go, but no closer.

BLUE COLLAR – Greg Monroe’s double-doubles are becoming routine. He racked up his 18th of the season against Toronto, putting up 30 points and 14 rebounds. He took a cheap shot from Toronto’s Jerryd Bayless to stop a breakaway dunk early in the fourth quarter and that flagrant foul ignited him. Monroe scored 17 in the fourth, including 9 of 10 shooting on free throws, as he forced the Raptors to foul him to stop aggressive moves around the basket. Monroe added a pair of assists and blocked shots plus a steal.

RED FLAG – The Pistons credited their defense with the turnaround from 4-20 to 11-22. They even credited their improved offense to their re-energized defense. But that defense betrayed them in the fourth quarter on Tuesday, when Cleveland came back from 11 down to win, and it continued to sprout leaks against Toronto. The Raptors came into the game averaging 88.8 points a game, 28th in the league, but they had that topped in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter. Toronto shot 53 percent and beat the Pistons up on the glass, 47-37, and they did it all without their starting center and best scorer, Andrea Bargnani.

Lawrence Frank’s vision for the Pistons is resolute: They will be a defense-first team. We know how practice is going to go when he reconvenes them Monday night for their next practice after the All-Star break: defense first.

The Pistons, who tightened up remarkably on that end in winning 7 of 10 games prior to the two-game trek to Cleveland and Toronto that carries them into the All-Star break, sprung leaks over these last two games. The Raptors, 28th in the NBA in scoring, built a 23-point lead early in the fourth quarter before a cheap shot from Jerryd Bayless on Greg Monroe ignited a comeback that saw the Pistons get within nine points with under five minutes to go.

“It’s disappointing, yet it’s just a reality check. We have a lot of work to do,” Frank said after the 103-93 loss that gives the Pistons an 11-24 record. “You don’t let the wins and losses get caught in your eyes about the process.

“This gives us a healthy break to reflect on which kind of team we want to be. Do we want to be the group that played the first 24 games (4-20 record) or the group that put together consistent basketball for a little bit of a stretch? We want to be that group. You have to be mentally and physically engaged every night to do it and that’s what we want to commit to.”

The fight they showed after the Bayless cheap shot would do nicely. After he clobbered Monroe with a body block from behind to prevent a breakaway layup – Bayless was hit with a flagrant-1 – the Pistons went on a 13-0 run and got within nine on a Brandon Knight 3-point shot. They still had 4:47 to work with at that point, but the miracle comeback wasn’t in them and they go into the break with a bad taste after a 7-3 stretch that concluded with Sunday’s Palace rout of Boston.

Monroe scored 17 in the fourth quarter, making 9 of 10 free throws, and finished with 30 points and 14 boards. Monroe made no attempt to hide his displeasure with Bayless – at the time or in the locker room afterward – but he said he was upset by the way the Pistons played as much as anything.

“I think it was overboard – I don’t think it was borderline at all,” he said of Bayless. “I think it was pretty obvious. They made the right call. … I was already fired up. We just didn’t play well. I don’t know what was going on. I know we can play better than that. They just came out and wanted to win more than us.”

Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of Wednesday’s loss was the passive play of Rodney Stuckey. He’d averaged 23.3 points and 11.2 foul shots over his last five games, but in 18 minutes he missed both his field goals and didn’t get to the line. Stuckey was on the bench when the Pistons rallied against Toronto and stayed there as Brandon Knight and Walker Russell played.

“The guys on the floor fought hard,” Frank said of the group he let finish. “That game was getting away from us and they kept on clawing, forced some turnovers, got some easy baskets. Greg was relentless on the glass. I thought he showed great fight.”

Of Stuckey’s night, Frank said, “Some nights you’re better than others. We have enough to win. We go with the guys that are going well. That’s what you do. That’s why you have a team. Next man up. No one’s going to play great for 82 games.”

While the Pistons were playing their third game in four nights, it was the first game for the Raptors since they’d hit their nadir, a home loss to the league’s worst team, Charlotte, last Friday. Now the Pistons get a similar break; their next game is Tuesday, when they host Philadelphia. What team will they be when they come back from the All-Star break? Lawrence Frank is likely to have that talk with them when he sees them at Monday’s practice.