Stuckey in Stride

Star turn vs. Lakers shines spotlight on Stuckey’s progress
In the last three minutes of regulation in Tuesday’s sizzling overtime win over the Lakers, Rodney Stuckey showed off weapons in three areas which have combined to hold back the ascent to All-Star contention that seemed within his grasp as a rookie.

With the Lakers leading by three points at 2:21, Stuckey executed a nasty crossover dribble that rocked Kobe Bryant to his heels before stepping back to drain a 13-foot jumper – the mid-range shot that’s been an inconsistent part of his game.

Stuckey on that shot and his mid-range game: “The shot clock was going down, so I had to create something. That’s what I created. (Mid-range jump shots) are something I do every day in practice, do it after practice with Steve Hetzel and Dee Brown and I do it before games. I’ve been doing it since summertime. It’s something that’s coming to me.”

After a Bryant missed 3-point attempt, Stuckey was back on the next possession driving hard to his left and taking the ball all the way to the basket before scoring at 1:44 over the most imposing player on the floor, Lakers 7-footer Andrew Bynum – the strong finish at the rim that proves a difficult adjustment for all but the few who come to the NBA.

Stuckey on learning how to finish: “Your body angles, just how you’re getting when you first pass your defender, cutting him off and also reading the other defender coming up next and what their body angles are. I like contact, so I don’t really care who’s in front of me. As long as I’m getting contact, I’m happy. Once I’m creating that contact, I’m able to balance myself in the air and that’s pretty much how I finish over big guys and get in the lane.”

On the Pistons’ final possession, with the Lakers back in front by a point and the shot clock set to expire, Stuckey, boxed in near the left sideline, gathered himself for a 3-point shot and confidently nailed it with 10 seconds to go – the long-distance element that hasn’t been a serious threat from Stuckey in his first four seasons.

Stuckey on developing a 3-point shot: “Just continue to get better at that each and every year. I’m just going to, after practice, keep getting up a lot more shots, just keep working at it. I know I’ve got to get better at that. It’s going to continue to get better.”

Given the stage of the game, the opponent and the stakes before a full house at The Palace that included new owner Tom Gores, it probably bears underscoring that each of those baskets was more critical than the last in helping the Pistons to their most important win of the season.

Lawrence Frank said after Tuesday’s win that since Feb. 1, Stuckey’s play has ranked with the best shooting guards in the league. In his last 15 games, starting on Feb. 3 when the Pistons beat Milwaukee to start a stretch in which they’ve gone 9-6 since a 4-20 start, Stuckey has averaged nearly 17 points and shot 46 percent. He’s also averaged eight free-throw attempts a game.

Frank strongly believes Stuckey’s game will keep evolving, but he wants him to play to his core strengths – using his speed and strength, namely, to attack the basket.

“His relentlessness in terms of attacking the basket – it’s a lot of hard work,” Frank said. “Even though he has a strong, physical frame, you have to deliver a lot of blows and you have to take a lot of hits. That’s why a lot of guys don’t like doing it. We ask a lot of him because we expect a lot of him.”

Stuckey was as animated in the win over the Lakers as he’s been at any point in his NBA career, a reflection of the joy he’s experienced in playing under Frank with the freedom he’s given players on offense – with one huge caveat.

“He’s said if we get stops on defense we can do whatever we want on offense,” he said. “He’s putting the ball in my hands. I’m getting a lot of points at the free-throw line, a lot of points on the fast break. Us pushing the ball a lot more this year is helping me out.”

With Greg Monroe and Brandon Knight both struggling to score against the Lakers, aside from a first-half flurry of points by Ben Gordon is was Stuckey who carried the Pistons offensively, finishing with 34 points, 22 after halftime. Tayshaun Prince thought it was remarkable that the Pistons were able to score enough with only one player – Stuckey – able to establish a rhythm, a testament to just how good Stuckey was on a night the Lakers clearly made him the focal point.

They began the game with Kobe Bryant guarding him and finished it with Metta World Peace, the former Ron Artest – two of the premier defenders of their generation. At other times, Matt Barnes, Steve Blake and Andrew Goudelock took turns. In the fourth quarter, the Lakers “blitzed” every Stuckey pick and roll to double team him 30 feet from the basket just to get the ball out of his hands.

“And when they blitz, you’re talking about wing spans of condors,” Frank said. “With Artest, he was able to get him on some rejects, some pick and rolls with Ron, who is a great defender. You’ve got to go quick. You can’t mess with the ball, and I thought Rodney did a good job of making good, quick, efficient moves.

“Kobe is obviously an elite defender and Rodney had that one outstanding play at the high post, just quick move, pull up. He did a very good job in the half court of not trying to go too quick. In transition – boom – you want to rely on your speed. In the half court, you’ve got to read and make sure you’re making the right plays. The drive against Bynum, there was just good patience there that wound up off a reject on a pick and roll. He let the game slow down a little and made some excellent plays.”

There is a general sense from fans that Stuckey is what he is at 25 and in his fifth NBA season - and even at that, it makes him a valuable player – but Frank doesn’t buy that for a second.

“He works at it daily,” Frank said of Stuckey, who wasn’t signed until 10 days before the season opener and got knocked further behind by an early-January groin injury. “You just see that he’s starting to reap the rewards of his hard work. There are a lot of guys in this league who initially come in as one thing and by everyday work over time you start to see it. It’s not an instant gratification type of deal. Those guys shoot shots in games that they rehearse a million times.”

Stuckey’s played in four different systems and next to a dizzying array of backcourt partners in his time with the Pistons, but the likelihood of stability around him now has never been greater. With Knight’s speed and fondness for pushing the ball making for backcourt synergy and Frank’s consistent message and grooming guiding their future together, chances are the last 15 games are merely the launching point for the prime of Rodney Stuckey’s career.