Perfectly imperfect: Pistons show heart of a winner in victory over Magic

When’s the last time you felt this good about the Pistons?

In two weeks, they’ve gone from lethargic and moody to energetic and upbeat. They’re defending and rebounding. They’re hustling and grinding. They’re… winning.

With tonight’s magnificent 103-96 victory over the Magic, the Pistons have their first 5-2 stretch since December 2009 and have won back-to-back games over teams with a combined winning record for the first time all season.

The win wasn’t magnificent because the Pistons played perfectly. The win was magnificent because they put their imperfections on full display and kept coming, anyway. Detroit fans will support a loser, but it must be a loser with heart. These Pistons showed plenty of heart tonight.

  • Austin Daye struggles to defend and rebound against power forwards, but he wasn’t too discouraged to hit big shots down the stretch en route to a career-high 20 points.
  • Tayshaun Prince seems reluctant about becoming a go-to player, but when the Pistons got deep in the shot clock, they passed to him, and he delivered.
  • Tracy McGrady can’t close to leading the league, let alone a team, in scoring anymore, but he caught the Magic off guard by looking for his shot.
  • Chris Wilcox and Greg Monroe defend by fouling, but in this game, that was the perfect strategy.
  • Ben Wallace can’t handle a lot of playing time at his age, but he gave a full game’s effort in his 19 minutes.
  • Rodney Stuckey fails to consistently take advantage of smaller guards, but when Detroit’s offense petered in the third quarter, Stuckey attacked Jameer Nelson.
  • Ben Gordon takes too many bad shots, but he made enough of them tonight.
  • Will Bynum fails to make a positive impact too often, but when he does, it’s spectacular.*
  • John Kuester lacks the communication skills necessary to get a team to fully buy in, but he devised a great scheme.

*Yes, I’m still crediting him for Saturday’s win over the Suns. Tonight was just another forgettable performance for Bynum, but his fourth quarter against Phoenix was so spectacular, I don’t care.

Here’s the trick, though. When the Pistons play with this much heart, they’re no longer losers. They’re not only capable of making the playoffs, they’re likely to qualify.

Last season, the Pistons showed heart at times. The season before, they made the playoffs. If they can do both this year, that would be a major step.

Tonight, they put their best foot forward on that path.

Daye-light shines

Ryan Anderson regularly escaped Austin Daye’s defense to find open shots, and the Magic bullied Daye on the glass.

With that out of the way, Daye played awesomely.

He scored a career-high 20 points, including nine in the fourth quarter. Daye has never looked inexperienced on offense, but has never looked this savvy, either. He made what might be Detroit’s biggest shot outside the final eight minutes of a game in quite some time.

The Magic were on a 14-4 run. The Pistons had made just two shots in the previous 6:25, and that stat doesn’t fully explain how dysfunctional the Pistons’ offense had been. But after Orlando cut its deficit to four and the Pistons called a timeout, Daye buried a 3-pointer to give momentum, and ultimately the game, back to Detroit.

Daye made all four of his 3-point attempts tonight, and he’s made five in a row. That still leaves him short of the 10 straight he made earlier in the season.

As impressive as his shooting has been all season, Daye’s length makes him intriguing because it allows him minimize his shortcomings. Even when he didn’t stick with his man, he made two steals. Even when he got pushed around inside, he grabbed seven rebounds.

He wasn’t perfect, but he was perfect for the Pistons tonight.

Tayshaun Prince becomes go-to player

Tayshaun Prince had 20 points on 9-of-14 shooting – impressive numbers, without a doubt. But they don’t begin to demonstrate how well Prince scored the ball tonight.

Several times, when the shot clock was running low, the Pistons passed to Prince. That’s a pretty staunch burden for someone who spent his prime as a fourth option.

But Prince didn’t back away from his teammates treating him like Carmelo Anthony. Rather, Prince stepped up.

While the rest of the Pistons were still getting their feet under them, Prince made Detroit’s first two shots – both difficult and late in the shot clock. Those two shots probably weren’t the difference tonight, but if they missed, the vibe of the game might have been different.

Prince also made six assists and did a good job defending Hedo Turkoglu, who scored four points on 2-of-8 shooting. I would have liked to see Prince rebound a little better, but that’s a minor complaint. Overall, he played incredibly.

He wasn’t perfect, but he was perfect for the Pistons tonight.

Tracy McGrady once again shoots a lot in a Magic game

Before the game, Brian Schmitz of the Orlando Sentinel wrote, “T-Mac is essentially playing the role of a passer.” Before the game, it was true. Ben Wallace is the only Piston with a higher assist-to-shot ratio than McGrady.

But apparently McGrady had something different in mind tonight. He scored 20 points on 19 shots – more shots than he’s taken in a game in 23 months.

McGrady initially caught the Magic off guard and had room to drive the basket and take jumpers without much defensive pressure. But he should have shifted from attack mode sooner. He missed five of his last six shots.

Still, It’s hard not to like a guy who spits in the face of his shortcomings so blatantly. For a night, McGrady convinced himself he’s still an elite scorer.

He wasn’t perfect, but he was perfect for the Pistons tonight.

John Kuester’s brilliant defensive strategy

I’m not sure anyone coaches spacing better than Stan Van Gundy. When the Magic run a pick-and-roll, it’s very difficult to stop, because help defenders must come from so far. When Orlando is executing its scheme at peak levels, only elite defenses like the Celtics’ and the Bulls’ have a chance at stopping it.

The Pistons, frankly, don’t have the personnel to defend like that.

So, John Kuester implemented a brilliant plan to stop Orlando. Two elements of the Pistons’ defensive strategy stood out.

1. The Pistons weren’t afraid to foul inside.

This element of the plan was easy enough, considering Chris Wilcox and Greg Monroe foul a lot already. When you consider the Magic rank 29th in free-throw percentage (73.7 percent), the benefits are clear. Plus, Ben Wallace, Austin Daye and Jason Maxiell off the bench gave Detroit cover to use its fouls.

Orlando made just 23-of-34 free throws (67.6 percent) tonight.

But the strategy had an under-the-radar benefit that impacted the game even more in the Pistons’ favor.

When the Magic shoot at least 34 free throws, they’re 3-5. That might be an aberration, but I don’t think it is.

By frequently fouling, the Pistons disrupted the flow of the game. The Magic, whose offense is predicated on making 3-pointers, didn’t get into a rhythm until the fourth quarter, and I think the frequents stops played into that.

In their eight games taking at least 34 free throws, they’re 60-for-183 on 3-pointers (24.7 percent), including 7-of-27 (20.6 percent) tonight.

2. The Pistons gave up mid-range jumpers to secure offensive rebounds

The Magic entered the game 17-5 when they grab more than 25.2 percent of available rebounds (their season total).

Aside from back-to-back tip attempts by Dwight Howard early in the first quarter, the Magic didn’t have a single offensive rebound in the first half. Detroit grabbed 13 defensive rebounds in the first half.

The Pistons controlled the defensive glass because they often sagged off mid-range shooters in order to rebound. The Magic made 58.3 percent of their midrange shots, but that sacrifice was worth it for Detroit. Orlando is comfortable scoring by feeding Dwight Howard inside or allowing everyone else to shoot from the outside. The Pistons made the weakness of their defense match the weakness of the Magic’s offense.

Kuester outcoached Van Gundy, who’s one of the NBA’s better coaches, and he deserves a lot of credit for this win.

He wasn’t perfect, but he was perfect for the Pistons tonight.

Ben Gordon’s question shot selection

I groaned before nearly all of Ben Gordon’s 13 shots. He was the anti-Tayshaun Prince. Gordon often forced a shot early in the shot clock. When he shot late in the clock, it was because he held the ball too long.

But Gordon still made six shots and scored 16 points.

Games like this are why Joe Dumars signed him and why Gordon still has potential. Gordon takes a lot of bad shots, but he makes a lot of them.

Can you imagine how efficiently Gordon could score if he took better shots?

He wasn’t perfect, but he was perfect for the Pistons tonight.

Greg Monroe starts at center

All the dissenting commenters to my post advocating for Ben Wallace to start over Greg Monroe got their wish. It appears Monroe is the staring center, and Wallace will come off the bench.

A big concern of mine was how Wallace would play after sitting on the bench for an extended period of time. Could he get loose when he didn’t just go through warmups? The early returns are promising. Wallace grabbed 11 rebounds in 19 minutes.

Monroe looked fine, too, but when his primary task is guarding Dwight Howard one-on-one, tonight isn’t the game to judge him.

Monroe and Wallace played 6:06 together late in the first quarter and into the second quarter. In the second half, their minutes were mutually exclusive.

I’m going to continue monitoring the center rotation. I don’t think there’s another starting job more up for grabs right now. Wallace and Monroe continue to make near-equal claims for the job.

They weren’t perfect, but they were perfect for the Pistons tonight.

Will Bynum struggles

Two days after rescuing the Pistons against the Suns, Will Bynum shot 0-for-7. I think this has become his M.O. – several subpar games followed by one where he puts the Pistons on his back late.

For a low-paid backup, that’s probably worth it.

He wasn’t perfect, but he was perfect for the Pistons on Saturday.

New play

At Georgetown, Greg Monroe made use of his passing ability by operating out of the high post. The Pistons have plenty of perimeter players and not enough in-the-paint players, so they haven’t use Monroe in the high post.

But they’ve added a play recently that takes advantage of Monroe’s passing ability.

Monroe sets a screen on the perimeter and rolls to the basket. He’s become adept at rolling hard, so he often draws a help defender. The ball-handler, often Tracy McGrady, passes to Monroe, who evaluates whether the help defender has reached him in time. If he hasn’t, Monroe shoots a layup. If he has, Monroe makes the extra pass to a cutting Piston, whose man left to help on Monroe. That player, often Chris Wilcox, is usually in good position for a layup or a dunk.

Eventually, defense will adjust to stop it, but it’s a nice wrinkle, and I like it a lot.

It wasn’t perfect, but he was perfect for the Pistons last night.

Tags: Austin Daye Ben Gordon Ben Wallace Chris Wilcox Greg Monroe Tayshaun Prince Tracy McGrady Will Bynum