Back on Track
Stuckey saves shorthanded Pistons backcourt, D steps up in win over NY
On a 15-man team, the Pistons have dedicated more than a quarter of their roster spots to point guards. It was the one you won’t find there who saved them.
With Chauncey Billups and Will Bynum out again with leg injuries and Brandon Jennings’ night over early after he gave them 27 minutes while dealing with an upset stomach, the Pistons put the ball in Rodney Stuckey’s hands.
Pretty tidy line he put up, too, scoring 21 points and handing out five assists while making 8 of 14 shots and knocking down all five of his free throws. Stuckey scored 12 straight points as the Pistons stretched their lead from 64-59 late in the third quarter to 76-63 early in the fourth, then he ended the streak by penetrating and firing a perfect laser to set up an Andre Drummond dunk. That gave the Pistons a 15-point lead with 10 minutes to play.
When it got hairy, Carmelo Anthony leading the Knicks with 11 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter to pull the Knicks within five points on three occasions, it was Stuckey who again made the plays that led to the 92-86 win, hitting two free throws and hitting Smith for another layup that both times pushed their lead back to seven.
“When he plays at the level he’s capable of playing at, he’s a scary player,” said Smith, who had another stat stuffer night with 19 points, five boards, four assists and a steal. “We all depend on him to play big for us and he’s been doing that.”
“Stuckey did a nice job,” said Maurice Cheeks, who also turned to rookie Peyton Siva for 11 minutes, his first meaningful action. “We put the ball in his hands and he knows how to make plays for us. It wasn’t so much that he was at the point, it was that we kept the ball in his hands and he made plays.
“When he comes in the game, the ball usually goes in his hands and he makes plays. He doesn’t just try to score – he has the ability to score – but he makes plays for other people.”
"We’re athletic; there shouldn’t be a reason why we can’t do that each and every night."
- Josh Smith on scoring
Full game quotes
Stuckey was upbeat over the summer after talking to Cheeks and getting a glimpse of what his role would be and how the offense would function. He’s fifth on the team in minutes per game (27) and is averaging 14.2 points while shooting 45.5 percent, a start head and shoulders above what he managed a year ago despite missing nearly a month and all of preseason with a broken thumb.
“He just lets you do your own thing,” Stuckey said. “He’s free-minded. He just lets you play. … I’m just trying to make plays, just trying to go out there and be aggressive. If I’m open, shoot the ball; if my teammates are open, give them the ball.”
Cheeks would like to keep Stuckey in a sixth-man role. That will be easier to do if rookie Kentavious Caldwell-Pope seizes the reins on the starting shooting guard spot. He took a step in that direction against the Knicks. Though he shot 4 of 12, Caldwell-Pope gave the Pistons two good offensive spurts – seven first-quarter points when the Knicks were hot, then back-to-back triples in the third quarter – and, as Cheeks has come to expect, solid defense.
Better than solid, in fact. Caldwell-Pope spent some of his night guarding Iman Shumpert, some J.R. Smith, and he consistently stayed in front of both of them. Late in the game, the rookie’s length and quickness allowed the Pistons to switch him onto Anthony off a pick-and-roll play and he harassed him into giving the ball up. He finished with 13 points and four rebounds.
“He was good defensively,” Cheeks said. “A lot of these guys he’s seeing for the first time, so for him to be able to defend the way he defended them is pretty good. He guarded on the ball extremely well. That’s the reason why he’s able to be in the game at the end, because he can move his feet and he can guard one on one as well as anybody on our team.”
Cheeks also gave Siva high marks for his defense, and the rookies were part of a much better collective team defensive effort. The Pistons came into the game last in the NBA in field-goal percentage defense, but held the Knicks to 43.4 percent despite New York starting off 6 of 6. The reaction: encouraging, but no ticker-tape parades were being scheduled.
“That’s what we need to hold people to,” Smith said. “We’re long, we’re athletic – there shouldn’t be a reason why we can’t do that each and every night. Hopefully, we’re turning the corner and we’re establishing ourselves on the defensive end first.”
And Cheeks: “Defense was better. Something we talked about, tried to focus on a little bit more this game. We realized we have to get better and we took a step, but we’ve got a long way to go.”
And Stuckey: “We can take some notes from this game, but we’ve got to continue to get better. We’ve got a long ways to go still, but we were happy with what we did defensively. But we’ve still got to work, though.”
They’ll get back to it in Atlanta – a homecoming for Smith, who not only spent his first nine NBA seasons there but grew up in Atlanta – on Wednesday, where Cheeks will again have to dig into his bench with Billups and Bynum again unlikely to play and Jennings iffy. Could be another long night in store for Stuckey and the rookies.
“They’re just learning,” Stuckey said of Caldwell-Pope – who’ll also have a Georgia homecoming – and Siva. “It’s a learning experience for everybody, for Peyton and Kentavious. He’s doing a hell of a job, stepping in and making shots and playing good D as well. That’s what we need him to do.”