The story of the game in Pistons red, white and blue
WHITE HOT – Memphis came back from seven points behind in the final minutes of regulation and survived a winning 3-pointer from Chauncey Billups, then scored the first four points in overtime and won 111-108 in its home opener. Rodney Stuckey led the Pistons with 19 points in 23 minutes in his return from injury and Josh Smith matched his 19. The Pistons trailed by 10 points midway through the third quarter before Greg Monroe (16 points, eight rebounds) sparked them with five quick points and Stuckey added six points as the Pistons outscored Memphis 20-8 to take a two-point lead into the fourth quarter. Mike Conley led Memphis with 22 points.
BLUE COLLAR – With Rodney Stuckey back, Maurice Cheeks could have gone with a three-guard rotation and kept Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on the bench. But to moderate the minutes of Chauncey Billups, Will Bynum and Stuckey – who only practiced once after sitting more than two weeks with a broken thumb – Cheeks used the rookie for 18 minutes and he responded with 13 points, all of them in the second half when the Pistons made their move.
RED FLAG – In a game where both teams struggled to get easy baskets, the Pistons allowed Memphis too many relatively easy points. The Grizzlies got slightly more than one-third of their 47 first-half points in transition (16), in large measure by scoring 15 points off 10 Pistons turnovers. The early trouble with turnovers and transition defense allowed Memphis to control the pace of the game and get its defense set, which helped slow the game down even more. The Pistons played a much cleaner second half and nearly won, but Memphis’ playoff experience and poise enabled the comeback.
If the Pistons put themselves in position to win on the road against NBA title-worthy teams and it comes down to Chauncey Billups at the free-throw line and the 3-point line, well, they’re going to win a lot of games this season.
He missed a free throw that would’ve put the Pistons up five with 52 seconds left and a triple at the buzzer that forced overtime and Memphis won, 111-108 in overtime. It was the kind of loss that stings, but it was also the kind of loss that forged the souls of the Goin’ to Work Pistons in Billups’ first go-around with the Pistons.
“Both,” Billups said when I asked him if the takeaway from the game was letting a big road win wiggle off the hook or a huge measuring stick performance from a young team whose knees would have buckled a year ago when Memphis took the game’s first double-digit lead, 10 points, midway through the third quarter.
Instead, the Pistons led by two before the third quarter was out and by six with 1:09 to play after a Josh Smith triple.
"We were right there...we had the chance to win the game. I’m proud of our guys.” - Maurice Cheeks on the close gameFull game quotes
“We definitely let this game get away,” Billups said. “Oh, man. This kind of game just sits on you. You hate to lose like this. You’re in control, but it happens. It’s the NBA. You’ve just got to learn from it. You’ve got to learn – be better, execute down the stretch, take care of the ball. With all of that, you have a shot to win it, a shot we wanted. I didn’t knock it down, but that’s basketball. That’s how it goes.”
Western Conference road games have bedeviled the Pistons over the last few seasons. They’ve now lost 19 straight and 42 of 43. Greg Monroe has lived through all of them. He, too, felt conflicting emotions.
“We played hard,” he said after a 16-point, eight-rebound outing against Memphis’ physical and talented frontcourt. “That’s something as a group we all agree on. We played hard. We did enough to win the game, but we were just one play away. That’s how we have to play every night, and if we play like that every night, more times than not we’ll come out with a win.”
Billups wasn’t around for all of the recent travails, spending the last few seasons in the Western Conference where he acquired an appreciation for the Grizzlies, who knocked his Clippers out of last year’s playoffs. The response the Pistons showed after falling behind by 10 showed him something.
“I loved it,” he said. “We fought hard. We fought really hard. That’s a tough team over there. Western Conference finals last year, got some great players over there. So I was impressed. I learned a lot about our team today.”
Told of the recent record against the West, Billups nodded and said, “That’ll change this year.”
Maurice Cheeks, who was every bit as calm in the heat of the fourth quarter and overtime as he always appears, was equally upbeat.
“It was a good game, a good fun game,” he said. “As I told our guys, that was a Western Conference finals team last year and we were right there. We had a chance to win the game. I’m proud of our guys, the way they came in and played that game. We’ll get better.”
It was Memphis’ kind of game for 2½ quarters, grinding and ugly. The paint was packed, the Pistons committed too many turnovers and Memphis made them pay with easy transition points in a game where points otherwise came grudgingly. But down 59-49, the Pistons scored 20 points over the final six minutes of the third quarter, sparked by the backcourt of Rodney Stuckey – back from a thumb injury that sidelined him for more than two weeks – and rookie Kentavious Cadlwell-Pope.
Stuckey gave the Pistons 19 points in 23 minutes and the rookie scored all 13 of his points after halftime. There were other impressive performances, too. Andre Drummond had 16 boards and 12 points, and his tip of Smith’s missed baseline jumper with less than a minute left would’ve given the Pistons a four-point lead but was ruled basket interference. Smith had 19 points, eight rebounds and five assists, and though he shot 8 of 23 – the Pistons went hard at Mike Miller with Smith late in the game, trying to foul Miller out – the impact of his competitive edge on the Pistons is clear.
Smith, Monroe and Drummond all had three steals, another indicator of how aggressively the Pistons met the Memphis swagger head on.
Almost every question Cheeks was asked after the game, he brought it around to his appreciation for the quality of basketball played and the way his young team rose to meet the moment.
When somebody asked about perimeter shooting and the way Memphis packed the lane, Cheeks said, “The paint was packed in, but we had some guys who made some shots. We’re probably going to have to get more perimeter shooting, but, man, that was a fun game.”