Well, after three games, a theme has emerged.
The Pistons cannot hold a lead. Against New Jersey and Oklahoma City, the problems were at the defensive end. In Saturday’s 101-91 loss to Chicago, the problems were at both ends of the court as the Bulls out-scored the Pistons 34-9 in the fourth quarter and erased what was at one time a 21-point Pistons lead.
It was the third straight game the Pistons should’ve closed out, the third straight team the Pistons did enough right to look like a competent NBA team and the third straight game we watched with a helpless feeling, sensing what was coming as Chicago chipped and chipped away at that lead without any sign of a response from Detroit.
After three games, it’s safe to ask. Why does the team look so good at times, good enough to build leads against two sure playoff teams, yet can’t hold on?
They are in games because their bench, offensively at least, is going to be superior to virtually every team they play this season. Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva (and Will Bynum when he’s healthy) will come in and abuse virtually any second unit player on any other team at their respective positions. Against the Bulls, the Pistons bench topped 40 points for the third straight game. Gordon couldn’t miss in the first half, Villanueva hit a couple big threes. They’re both streaky and will have some off nights shooting, but it’s a safe bet that they’ll also keep the Pistons in a lot of games by simply out-scoring the opponent’s bench.
The starters, on the other hand, will struggle to score most nights. None are what I would call poor players, but it’s going to be rare that any of the five starters on the Pistons will be better offensive players than their positional counterparts. The starters play better defense as a unit, they turn it over less as a unit, but they will inevitably rarely outscore the opposing starters.
The simple answer is, “Why not flip Gordon or Villanueva to the starting lineup?”
Well, the Bulls game proved why that won’t work. Gordon and Villanueva were very good in the first half. Gordon was being guarded at times by Kyle Korver and C.J. Watson. Villanueva was matched up with Brian Scalabrine for a long stretch. Hard not to look good against those players. But then Chicago adjusted in the second half and shortened their bench. When Gordon and Villanueva came in in the third, Chicago left Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah in up front for a bit. They also left Derrick Rose in, meaning Gordon would have to guard him some when Rodney Stuckey went out of the game.
It wasn’t pretty. Gordon didn’t make a shot in the second half and had three turnovers during a key Chicago run. John Kuester went back to Rip Hamilton, who didn’t have a good game offensively, for most of the fourth, and despite some beat writers protesting on Twitter — “But Gordon has 21 points and Rip only has five!!!” — Kuester had to do it. Hamilton wasn’t shooting it well, but at least he wasn’t booting the ball all over the court when he tried to put it on the floor the way Gordon was. Gordon also struggled to get shots off when Keith Bogans or James Johnson guarded him in the second half.
Villanueva shot it well through three quarters, then when Gibson started guarding him in the fourth, Villanueva went 0-for-6 from the field in the quarter.
Austin Daye had another non-existent game as a starter, and I’ve written previously that I think Villanueva has out-played him and will eventually supplant him as a starter. Although I still feel that Villanueva is the better option at the four right now, putting him in the starting lineup, or putting Gordon in the starting lineup, would eliminate really the only advantage the Pistons have right now, their bench scoring.
The Chicago meltdown was by far the ugliest to watch, made worse by the fact that I had to watch the game on League Pass and listen to Stacy King and whoever Chicago’s other broadcaster is blather on and on about nonsense. The Pistons were once again competitive. But unlike the OKC and NJ games, which were back-and-forth all game long, the Pistons were firmly in control of this game and lost it. Good teams sometimes lose games like the ones the Pistons lost in their first two. But bad teams always lose games the way the Pistons lost against Chicago.
Monroe’s first minutes
Pat Caputo can rest easy: Greg Monroe has finally played in a regular season game. With the Pistons in control in the first half, Monroe played seven minutes, made his only shot and had three rebounds. Not bad. But he also had three fouls in seven minutes and turned it over once, setting an illegal screen. I’ve written it often, but rookie big men generally take longer to adjust to the NBA than other rookies. There’s much more contact in the post, players are stronger and it’s simply hard not to foul a lot. Monroe looked comfortable and hopefully he’ll build on the little bit of time he saw tonight.
McGrady’s first bucket
Through three games as a Piston, Tracy McGrady has looked a little reluctant to shoot. That’s never a sentence I thought I’d write about McGrady. He shot 1-for-3 and scored his first two points of his Pistons career and also had four rebounds and an assist. The bad? Three turnovers in 17 minutes. McGrady has a long ways to go (if he has anything left) to be a helpful player to the Pistons, but I do appreciate that he hasn’t tried to force things when he’s been on the court. He had one nice play where he drove past Korver and found Jason Maxiell for what would’ve been a dunk had Max not been fouled. Unfortunately, he also had one of his shots deflected by Korver (not sure it can be called a block … it was an awkward play and Korver kind of got his hand on a shot that appeared to slip out of McGrady’s hand a little bit), which is another sentence I never thought I’d write about McGrady.
Stuckey’s point guard progression
Rodney Stuckey has been the biggest positive for the Pistons through three games. Stuckey has 23 assists and only four turnovers, he’s making good decisions and he’s getting to the line a lot. Including his 11 free throws against the Bulls, Stuckey is averaging over seven attempts per game. He didn’t shoot it well in the second half against the Bulls — going just 1-for-6. I believe Stuckey should be a 47 percent or better shooter this season, if it’s going to be called a successful season for him, and he’s at 46 percent right now. With his improved decision-making, however, he’s been the most important player on the court for the Pistons, particularly with Bynum out, making Stuckey the only point guard-like player on the roster.