Woes in Winnipeg

Pistons cut 29-point margin to 3, but run out of gas in loss to T-wolves
The story of the game in Pistons red, white and blue

– Winnipeg, the coldest city in North America, put a chill into the Pistons long before winter arrives. The Pistons shot 17 percent in a first quarter that saw Minnesota go on an 11-0 run and take a 17-point lead that stretched to 29 in the second quarter. But employing a zone defense to start the second half, the Pistons went on a 21-1 run and cut their deficit to three points before Minnesota recovered with a 10-0 spurt of its own and won 95-76. Rodney Stuckey fueled the big third quarter, scoring 13 of his 21 points. Chase Budinger came off Minnesota’s bench to hit 5 of 8 from the 3-point arc and match Stuckey’s 21. The Pistons, now 3-4, host Atlanta on Friday at The Palace to wrap up the preseason. They host Houston on Wednesday to open the regular season.

BLUE COLLAR – Dante Cunningham is playing for his fourth NBA team since being picked in the second round in 2009, but he perhaps has found a home in Minnesota – at least if his performance against the Pistons is any indication. He was the first big man off the bench for the Timberwolves and staked a claim to stay in the rotation even when Kevin Love returns from injury by scoring 12 points and grabbing 14 rebounds in 26 minutes. For the Pistons, Kyle Singler stood out among the second unit, solidifying his shot at cracking the rotation by contributing 11 points, four rebounds and two steals.

RED FLAG – Lawrence Frank probably won’t see a more perplexing statistical anomaly all year: The Pistons missed 24 shots in their frigid first half, yet they didn’t grab one offensive rebound. That changed on the first possession of the third quarter, when Greg Monroe hustled down his own miss and converted. The lack of offensive rebounding in the first half symbolized the lack of aggressiveness with which the Pistons played early. They were a half-step slow to loose balls and open shooters and it showed in other statistical categories, as well, but nowhere as graphically as in offensive rebounding. The Timberwolves grabbed nine in that first half. Kevin Love, one of the league’s dominant rebounders, missed the game after suffering a broken hand last week.

WINNIPEG, Manitoba – It was one game. And it’s still only the preseason. And it was in a place they’d never been before and likely won’t ever see again.

Still, there’s probably no explanation Lawrence Frank could possibly find satisfactory for the way the Pistons played in the first half against a Minnesota team minus Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, when they fell behind by 29 points, shot 27 percent and failed to grab a single offensive rebound despite 24 chances.

“First half, we pretty much just let them do anything,” Rodney Stuckey said. “We let them do whatever they wanted. We weren’t assertive. They just outworked us, got every loose ball. We just played bad.”

“They won all the 50-50 balls, all the hustle plays,” Lawrence Frank said after the 95-76 loss dropped the Pistons to 3-4 in preseason. “You shoot such a low percentage and not get any offensive rebounds?”

For everything they did poorly in the first half, they were that good in the first eight minutes of the second half, outscoring Minnesota 21-1 and cutting the deficit to three points before the Timberwolves rallied back with a 10-0 run of their own.

The surprise of the night: a zone defense Frank used in glimpses in the first half but exclusively during the third-quarter run. It was something they didn’t use at all a season ago, but for one night, at least, it proved its worth as a change-of-pace weapon, if nothing else.

“Down a thousand points,” Frank said. “We were just trying to change the tenor of the game, get their shots from different spots, trying to get our guys at a different engagement level. We took care of the ball, so we started getting shots. We got to the free-throw line, so then you can set your defense. But we played one quarter of basketball.”

That, ultimately, will be Frank’s takeaway from the game. It continued a pattern of long stretches in all four road games when the Pistons took themselves out of contention with flat play at one or both ends.

“We’re seeing some recurring things, especially on the road, that once things don’t go our way, we kind of fall apart a little bit,” Frank said. “We’re going to have to be a whole lot more disciplined on both ends of the floor and tighter with what we do. We’ve got a whole lot of work to do.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s alarming, but we do have to play better,” Greg Monroe said. “We do have to come out with more energy, especially on the road, and pay attention to more detail when we’re on the road.”

The 21-1 run that opened the second half presents Frank with a chicken-or-the-egg conundrum. Was it the zone that inspired the Pistons to greater involvement, or their halftime introspection that enabled the zone to be effective where their first-half defense was so porous?

“We had to play better,” said Stuckey, who scored 13 of his team-best 21 in the third quarter. “I thought we were sharing the ball a lot better in the third quarter, getting to the free-throw line, establishing a post presence. Also our defense. We did go to the zone; we rebounded the ball pretty well. We just had to play harder. First half, we were just letting them do whatever. L came in here and got on us. That’s what any coach would do, I would hope. We’ve just got to be more assertive. The third quarter, we came out and played well. But we’ve got to do it for all four quarters.”

Frank said he planned to use the final two preseason games as dress rehearsals for next week’s season opener, but the first half was so lopsided and forced his hand in ways he might not have otherwise decided. So it remains to be seen what Wednesday’s rotation pattern really meant.

The Pistons used 10 players in the first half. Those who came off the bench behind the usual starting five included Jonas Jerebko, Andre Drummond, Will Bynum and Kyle Singler before the first quarter had ended. Kim English also played three minutes of the first half and could be in line for playing time if Frank goes with a four-player backcourt rotation.

Drummond had his first ineffective outing of the preseason, going scoreless and grabbing two rebounds in nine minutes. He got a quick hook in the second half, Frank putting Slava Kravtsov in for him and later saying, “just wanted to go in another direction.”

About the only way they could go after Wednesday – aside from a brilliant eight minutes to start the second half – is up. They hope to take the first step in that direction Friday when the preseason ends on a visit to The Palace form Atlanta.

“We have to be more aggressive,” Monroe said, “and play with a little more energy.”