Charlie Villanueva can’t catch a break.
Friday’s loss against the Oklahoma City Thunder certainly wasn’t his best game as a Piston, but after establishing himself as a physical presence on the offensive glass, after battling on defense and after getting crunch time minutes — a rarity for him last season — for the second straight game, Villanueva spotted up in the corner, caught a nice feed from Ben Gordon and calmly knocked down what looked like the game-winning 3-pointer to put the Pistons up 104-103 with fewer than 10 seconds left against the Thunder.
Then, for the second straight contest, a defensive breakdown cost the Pistons the game. Against New Jersey, it was three players getting beat to a loose ball by Devin Harris that resulted in a game-winning shot. Against OKC, it was Jason Maxiell getting beat off the dribble by Jeff Green while Ben Wallace, who was supposed to be the weakside help on the play, got caught in no-man’s land and was late getting to Green because Wallace was cheating toward Kevin Durant. Green got to the basket unscathed and Detroit couldn’t get off a final shot with no timeouts remaining.
A lot went right for the Pistons, and I’ll get into those positives below. But my immediate take away was simply feeling bad for Villanueva. I’ve made no secret of my intrigue with Charlie V. I think he’s tougher than he gets credit for, and I think he genuinely wants to get better, wants to live up to his contract and wants to be successful in Detroit. He desperately needed a moment like the one he almost had tonight. Not that the Pistons losing necessarily erased the positive strides he made in other areas during the game, but we all know that memories from losses tend to fade quickly while game-winning shots tend to hang around all season. Villanueva, through two games, has the appearance of a better, more disciplined player than he was last season and that’s a good thing.
In fact, there were many good things that happened in this game. The Pistons shot a very good 47 percent. They held Oklahoma City to sub-40 percent shooting. The 47-43 rebounding disparity favored the Thunder, but not significantly. And most importantly, for the second straight game the Pistons were fun to watch, played cohesively and showed that there is no reason they can’t compete and have a chance to win games against good teams.
The defense is back
With great individual offensive performances by two players, most writers would start there. But if you’re curious as to why the Pistons almost won this game, look no further than this stat: 20-55. That is the combined field goals made and attempted by OKC’s three leading scorers, Durant, Green and Russell Westbrook. The Pistons were physical with them. They had their hands in faces of jump shooters all night. And as I said in the game preview, they contained Kevin Durant by making him a high-volume shooter. Durant scored 30 points, but because he gets to the line a ridiculous amount, he’s a virtual lock to go for almost 30 every night. All defenses can do against him is try and make it an inefficient 30, and the Pistons in their last three meetings with the Thunder have held Durant to 24-for-59 shooting. That’s as good a defensive job as any team in the league does against Durant.
If the defense is back, why did it give up more 100 points?
John Kuester allowed the Pistons to push the pace. The guards frequently ran on made baskets, caught the Thunder defense before it set and scored buckets in the lane all night. Frankly, I’m not used to seeing the Pistons play that aggressively on offense. They took and made good shots, they got offensive rebounds, and they shot a very good 47 percent.
So why did they lose?
Obviously, they looked terrible on the last defensive possession of the game. It kind of ruined what was otherwise a really good defensive effort. But the game would’ve been a pretty lopsided affair in favor of the Pistons had they protected the basketball. After opening the season with a clean six-turnover performance in New Jersey, the Pistons turned it over 18 times, including 12 in the first half, against Oklahoma City. Two of the main culprits? The usually steady Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince. Those guys are typically stabilizing influence in the starting lineup, but they combined for seven turnovers mostly because they each uncharacteristically threw some soft passes or made poor reads on where guys were going to be on the court.
Also, Austin Daye had his second straight poor shooting night, going 2-for-11. If he made one or two of those shots — and the Thunder were largely leaving him open — the Pistons probably win.
On to the rotation
Greg Monroe didn’t get on the court again. I already clowned some talk radio guys a bit, after they proclaimed after one DNP-CD in his first career game that Monroe is "a bust." I don’t know what those guys will think after he *gasp* picked up his second.
There are Pistons fans who are going to clamor for Monroe to play all season. I think I’m OK with him sitting as long as the Pistons are playing as competitively as they are right now. I always think it’s better for young guys to play their way into the lineup with strong practice habits, as Jonas Jerebko did last season and as Daye did this preseason, rather than just getting handed minutes because the franchise hopes they grow into a cornerstone.
Maxiell is not a great player, but he’s decent in some aspects of the game and he holds his own against most bigs in the league. At a minimum, I think it’s OK for the coaches to expect Monroe to beat Maxiell out before he gets minutes. My hope (for the sake of the franchise) is that Monroe quickly asserts himself as a better player, but if that doesn’t happen all season, I’m OK with Kuester keeping him glued to the bench.
There were a couple other rotation oddities, though. Tracy McGrady played only six minutes. He grabbed a couple rebounds, had an assist and looked really stiff on two plays, one where he was cutting to the basket and lost a pass off his leg and another where he couldn’t get to a lob thrown his way. McGrady didn’t get back into the game in the second half.
Wallace also had his minutes limited. He played just 20 minutes, grabbing eight rebounds with three blocks. He sat out most of the fourth, coming back in for the final play. I don’t know why he didn’t play more — perhaps Kuester was trying to save him for tomorrow since the Pistons have a back-to-back? I understand the desire to not overuse him, but having him out there for a few more minutes defensively could’ve certainly changed the outcome of the game.
Are you ever gonna get to Gordon or Stuckey, or what?
Saving the best for last? First, I just want to post their combined stat lines: 21-for-34, 56 points, 10 assists, 4 turnovers, 9 rebounds, 15 free throws attempted.
Stuckey has played one of the best two-game stretches as a point guard and playmaker in his career. He didn’t have his first turnover of the season until late in the second quarter of this game. He consistently made the right pass all night. He not only got inside, but he finished strong, including one vicious dunk in traffic and what would have been a second one had Thabo Sefalosha not fouled him. Through two games, Stuckey is averaging nine assists and just two turnovers a game, he’s had strong defensive efforts against two very good young point guards (yeah I know, Devin Harris had a good game, but that was largely due to his great fourth quarter after starting the game sluggishly), and he’s shooting over 50 percent. Stuckey has shown these flashes that he’s on the verge of putting his vast array of skills together throughout his career, and he’s consistently fallen back to mediocrity. He absolutely has to do it for a full season, but the Pistons have to be encouraged by this start.
And as for Gordon, that was a vintage performance. As fellow Pistons writer Steve Kays said on Twitter, "Ben Gordon is making the same kind of shots he was making against Boston in the 09 playoffs." Gordon, due to his injuries, didn’t have a dynamic scoring performance like that last season, where it seemed like every shot he took was going in, and not only going in, but barely moving the net. But I know Gordon can score. I was watching him defensively.
When Stuckey was out of the game, Gordon was guarding Westbrook, and not only guarding him, but doing an effective job. He was physical, bumping him and pressuring him full-court. He also moved his feet well and stayed in front of his man defensively.
Just glancing at Gordon, he looks like a guy who should be lock-down. He’s obviously a physical specimen and he’s obviously quick. Those are the most important physical skills when it comes to perimeter defense. For whatever reason, he’s never seemed as committed to his defense as his offense. Against Oklahoma City, he played both ends of the court with the same intensity, and he was simply dominant.
It’s early in the season, and the Pistons are 0-2. But they’ve established that they will play hard and be competitive, once against a not-so-good team and once against a team that some people predicted to get to the NBA Finals. The Pistons have glaring deficiencies, which I don’t think are a surprise to anyone who watches the team with an honest eye. But in the NBA, deficient teams fairly frequently beat more talented teams by playing the intensity the Pistons have played at through two games. I don’t know if they can maintain it, but I’m certainly more hopeful now than I was a few short weeks ago after watching them get beat down in the preseason opener in Miami.