I don’t know what happened to Rodney Stuckey Wednesday night.
For the first time since his first career playoff game as a rookie, Stuckey only attempted one field goal in the game. In fact, he didn’t even look for his shot at all, as that field goal attempt came on a breakaway with less than four minutes to go in the game where he didn’t really have the option to pass to anyone. Stuckey was solely a distributor, tallying 14 assists (and it could’ve been 17, but Rip Hamilton, Charlie Villanueva and Austin Daye all missed wide open jumpers in the fourth) and just two turnovers in what was one of the strangest performances of the season in a season full of strange occurrences.
Vincent Goodwill of the Detroit News speculated that Stuckey could’ve been on some type of shooting strike. Dave Hogg of the Associated Press tweeted that John Kuester implored Stuckey to shoot after he passed up an open shot for a low percentage pass. Stuckey greeted Eli Zaret’s question about what, exactly, he was trying to do out there with a huge smile before giving the typical, canned athlete-speak response about “just playing ball.”
Watching it, I didn’t really know what to make of Stuckey’s performance. On the one hand, he proved beyond a doubt that it’s not a question of whether or not he has the court vision or awareness to be a good passer. He fit the ball into tight spaces, he saw cutting teammates from all over the court, he drew defenders in the lane and kicked at the right time. His passing was brilliant. It was by far the best he’s ever passed the ball, by far the most he’s ever looked to pass.
But the problem? He has to shoot. They need him to shoot. Kuester was right to scream at him to shoot. He had several plays in the second half where he passed up good shots to set up attempts at worse ones for teammates. He had opportunities to get all the way to the rim that he passed up, including an alley-opp pass that he caught and instead of finishing, fired to Villanueva to attempt a corner three.
Stuckey’s night was both incredibly selfless and a little selfish at the same time. No one should want Stuckey to pass up good looks. No one should want him to quit attacking the basket ferociously considering one of his best skills is drawing contact and getting to the line. Everyone should want Stuckey to see the floor better and pass more, but that can’t come at the total expense of other things he does well.
He’s proven that he can independently look for his shot or create for others well. The key is whether or not he can do those things together. He’s not a traditional point guard, but neither are a lot of elite level PGs in the league. If Stuckey can in some way figure out how to mold the best elements of his game tonight with the aggressive Stuckey who can get to the rim at will against most defenders, today’s roundtable discussion will quickly become a moot point.
Stuckey has the physical tools to be one of the top all-around guards in basketball. What he’s never exhibited before is an ability to make those around him better by setting up easy shots. He did that in spades Wednesday. Greg Monroe, Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince all scored more than 20 points, none of them attempted more than 17 shots and none of them shot below 50 percent. Villanueva and Chris Wilcox were the beneficiaries of dump-off passes inside. Daye didn’t have big minutes or a good shooting night, but he had open looks.
And a funny thing happened because of Stuckey looking to pass: his teammates looked to pass as well. The ball moved. More often than not, the ball ended up where it should have. There were very few isolation plays that sucked the air out of the ball.
Part of this can be accounted for by the fact that the Raptors are perhaps the worst defensive team ever assembled. But don’t discount Stuckey’s play encouraging his teammates to look for each other more. This season, virtually every Piston has played inconsistent minutes and seen major fluctuations in what their role is on a game to game basis. The team has a large number of players whose immediate future is up in the air, either because of pending free agency or constant trade rumors. Those personal situations all conspire to, intentionally or unintentionally, breed selfishness. Guys want to play, and if they feel like they never know when their next minutes are going to come, they’ll go into get-mine mode, especially with a coach who seems like a lame duck.
In reality, the guys who are most likely to stay and be considered pieces the team can use are the ones who do what Stuckey did tonight. Whether he was trying to prove a point or not, he sacrificed scoring opportunities, he played with effort and he played as intelligent a game as he’s ever played. It’s frustrating that Stuckey seemed to finally get what the team needed from him all along this late in the season, but you never know when any young player is finally going to get the message. Hopefully, this was part of Stuckey’s learning process.