In a game where little of it was played, a defensive play down the stretch proved decisive in the Pistons 101-95 win over Toronto Friday.
The Pistons led by double figures most of the game, but got lazy in the final few minutes, settling for contested jumpers and even nearly getting an eight-second violation because Tracy McGrady was content to casually saunter up the court, just getting it over halfcourt as the shot clock was hitting ’16.’
That malaise, combined with Andrea Bargnani’s ability to get anything he wanted helped the Raptors pull to within five with the ball and about a minute remaining. Jose Calderon hit a cutting Amir Johnson, and just as Johnson was going up to finish, Greg Monroe stuck a hand in and just jarred the ball loose. The Pistons corralled it and Toronto was forced to foul, essentially sealing the game.
But let’s face facts: the Pistons are not a strong defensive team, and they beat Toronto because they played well on offense. That started and ended with the McGrady and Monroe combination. McGrady scored a season-high 22 points, and he assisted on three of Monroe’s six field goals. The two have great chemistry with each other, McGrady was constantly looking for Monroe on cuts and they run the pick and roll really well together. In fact, McGrady would’ve assisted on a fourth Monroe basket, but Monroe bobbled a catchable pass in good scoring position and couldn’t finish.
In the postgame interview, McGrady praised Monroe’s basketball IQ and said that he loves playing with him. There’s been a lot of debate in the comments about whether the Pistons should attempt to trade McGrady while his value is presumably high right now or instead attempt to re-sign him in the offseason.
Not that this comes as a surprise since I do a poor job of hiding my shameless McGrady fandom, but count me among the people who hope he’s back. When the Pistons signed McGrady, I saw it as a bit of a novelty. Joe Dumars taking a chance on a guy who probably won’t pan out and probably won’t get many minutes, which will probably make him unhappy. Instead, McGrady has been the brightest spot this season, other than Monroe’s development. He’s incredibly unselfish. He’s a good teammate. And unlike another veteran on the team, Tayshaun Prince, McGrady seems unflinchingly positive when it comes to praising and working with his younger teammates. He’s exactly the type of veteran presence the Pistons need around guys like Monroe, Austin Daye and, when healthy, Jonas Jerebko.
When McGrady plays well, I’m always struck with one thought: that guy seems fun to play with. To have a guy who has achieved the stardom in this league that McGrady has play as unselfishly as he does is no small thing.
And I don’t doubt for a minute that, if the Pistons come up with a competitive offer, McGrady will want to stay. The first person he praised in his interview tonight with Eli Zaret was Arnie Kander. McGrady said that Kander has him, “Really pleased about my future.” McGrady also mentioned, again, how great he feels compared to the last two years. Players who have gone through the devastating injuries McGrady has don’t take it lightly when they encounter a guy who helps as much as Kander does. A reunion next season between McGrady and the Pistons shouldn’t be out of the question and it should be something that Pistons fans are excited about building on.
The Pistons actually won a third quarter
It took a three by McGrady with :01 second left in the quarter to do it, but the Pistons out-scored the Raptors 22-20 in the third.
The coaching staff has been (fairly) maligned much of the last two seasons for the team’s consistent poor performances coming out of halftime. Against Toronto, the Pistons didn’t do anything particularly pretty in that third quarter, but they played with energy, even if shots weren’t falling. McGrady bailed them out with 10 points in the quarter and the team actually had a pretty impressive second half defensively against Toronto, holding them to 20 in the third and just 21 in the fourth. Bargnani was a killer all night (he finished with 31 points and 9 rebounds), but the Pistons did a nice job of holding everyone else in check.
Will Bynum makes a rotation cameo
Take one of the Pistons new starting lineup on Wednesday had McGrady starting at point guard and Rodney Stuckey starting at shooting guard and shifting over to play the point on the second unit. It appeared that John Kuester had settled on a three-guard rotation that featured McGrady, Stuckey and Ben Gordon.
On Friday, however, Stuckey only played 25 minutes and the backup point guard minutes went to Will Bynum. Now, Bynum’s flaws in his game are ever-present — he tends to be a risk taker, he’s turnover prone at times and he doesn’t defend well. But his quickness really bothered Toronto’s guards, he was active, didn’t turn it over and he had one beautiful assist, gliding to the basket for what looked like a layup attempt, only to whip a mid-air cross-court pass to Gordon for the three.
With Rip Hamilton logging his second straight DNP and apparently viewed right now as out of sight, out of mind, the Pistons will need some production from Bynum. McGrady has played 36 minutes in consecutive games, and as good as he’s looked, it’s unrealistic to expect him to hold up after barely playing the last two years. If Bynum can give good minutes, the Pistons will be in much better shape as they try to make their, ahem, playoff push.
Saying little, yet saying so much
The Pistons can’t be a fun team for Kuester to coach right now. Prince called him a buffoon to the media the other day, and I’m sure Prince and Hamilton are both very good at making it clear behind the scenes they aren’t fans of the direction Kuester is leading the team in.
This was a rather innocuous quote Kuester gave when asked about Monroe, but I thought it spoke volumes:
“It’s been such a breath of fresh air to coach someone who wants to continually learn.”
I think it’s easy to forget just how difficult a situation Kuester has been in with this team because of his penchant for, uh, the occasional baffling (dare I say Curry-esque?) decision. But after his latest series of rotation shufflings, I think he finally has things right. Monroe is continually rewarded for playing well with an increased role and more minutes. McGrady clearly won the point guard job, and now he’s been rewarded as the focal point of the offense. Starting Daye at power forward to begin the season was a poor decision. Removing him from the rotation completely was also a poor decision. But he’s getting 19 minutes per game in January, playing at his natural positions on the wing, and as long as he’s giving effort on defense, he’s not meeting the same quick hook he met early in the season.
This is a long-winded way of saying that, incrementally, Kuester has improved as a coach in subtle ways as the season’s trudged on. I don’t know that it will result in more wins or a playoff appearance or if it’s even enough to prove to the organization that he should be around longer-term. But it has resulted in a team that, win or lose, is far more satisfying to watch when the players who seem to care the most and play the hardest are getting the most minutes.