Back in the Groove

PORTLAND – Brandon Jennings spotted his teammates two games but still leads them in steals after five games with 10. Some people might be impressed by that. Mo Cheeks doesn’t figure to be one of them.

“He tells me all the time, he’s top five in steals in history,” Jennings laughed as the Pistons prepared to play Portland on Monday night to start a four-game trek down the Pacific Coast that ends Sunday night in Los Angeles. “I hear it every day.”

Indeed, Cheeks is No. 5 on the NBA’s all-time steals list, sandwiched between a virtual Mount Rushmore of NBA history: John Stockton, Jason Kidd, Michael Jordan and Gary Payton ahead of him; Scottie Pippen, Julius Erving, Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon on his heels.

Cheeks was pleased with the assertiveness Jennings displayed in his most recent game, when he scored 22 points and passed for 11 assists in the Pistons’ Friday loss to Oklahoma City.

“I told him that (Sunday),” Cheeks said. “It looked like he was getting in a nice little groove, particularly offensively. And defensively, he got his hands on a lot of balls. He was just more aggressive than he had been the previous games.”

That assessment accurately captures how Cheeks evaluates the game – with equal attention paid to either side of half court, Jennings has quickly noticed.

“He does really preach a lot about defense,” he said. “Because defense is going to win games for us and one thing he’s telling me is I’ve got great hands but I’ve got to keep guys in front of me all the time.”

Cheeks is still determining how best to employ the various pieces of his backcourt, a task complicated for him by the injuries that cost Jennings and Rodney Stuckey virtually all of the preseason. Jennings came off the bench in his Pistons debut, the season’s third game, but went into the starting lineup for the past two. Stuckey missed the season opener and has come off the bench in each of the next four games.

While Cheeks said again after Sunday’s Pistons practice at the University of Portland, “I have liked the combination of Brandon and Stuckey – I like the way they play together,” he said the starters will remain Jennings and Chauncey Billups for now.

Billups is in a 6 of 22 shooting slump since knocking down 4 of 8 in the season opener, when he hit 4 of 5 3-point shots, and said last week that he would be as willing to come off the bench as start. He also said he thought his optimum minutes per game in order to enable him to stay healthy for the 82-game season would be about 24 per game. So far, he’s averaging slightly above that, 27.

Now that Jennings and Stuckey have both had a full week-plus back in uniform, Cheeks might be able to extend their minutes. Jennings felt the 35-minute stint he logged against Oklahoma City and Russell Westbrook helped get him on track.

“That third game (back) was against one of the top five point guards in the NBA,” he said. “That was a good challenge for me right from the jump. I’m feeling way better, but we’ll see on this West Coast road trip.

“This will be a good test for the whole team, to see what type of team we’re going to be this year. It’s never easy coming out to the West Coast and being on the road so long, so not just for me but for everybody this is going to be a big test for us. We had two big tests at home, playing against Western and Eastern conference finals teams, so now we’re really going to see what we’re made of on the road.”