This season really could’ve been fun.
I don’t think the Pistons were good enough to make the playoffs. I don’t think their ceiling was much higher than 25-30 wins no matter what combinations they put out there. But I did really have fun watching the way they played in tonight’s 99-95 win against New York.
The pace was fast. Guys seemed to be enjoying themselves on the court. The Pistons blew a lead in the third quarter and instead of packing it in as has been the case in other games this season, they fought back. They re-took the lead. They made plays that they don’t typically make. And they closed out a win against a solid team with three of the best closers in the game in Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups and Amar’e Stoudemire.
The Pistons have a quirky roster full of pieces that don’t fit together that well. Tonight’s game was one of the few times John Kuester used the quirkiness of his roster to his advantage. Too often, the Pistons try and run traditional lineups out there only to find out they can’t compete by doing that. Kuester pushed the right buttons tonight, and his team looked great as a result.
Defending Carmelo Anthony
Anthony shot 2-for-12, and limiting him is a big reason the Pistons were able to win. One of the keys? Defending Anthony with Rodney Stuckey. Now, as he always does, Tayshaun Prince deserves credit for limiting Anthony as well. Prince started out on Anthony and bothered his shots with his length. But Stuckey guarded Anthony in the fourth quarter and gave Anthony a different look.
Anthony is arguably the strongest small forward in the game not named LeBron James. Prince defends him by closing out on him, giving up position but using his long arms to contest shots or force him to pass. Stuckey, on the other hand, was not strong enough to bother Anthony’s shots, but he’s stronger than Prince, so Anthony wasn’t able to set up where he wanted to. Stuckey fought him for position and kept Anthony out of sync in the fourth. Between the two of them, it was a fantastic and effective contrast in styles, and it was also a good coaching move by Kuester.
Wilcox’s killer game, sequence
Chris Wilcox was effective the entire game as his 13 points and 12 rebounds will attest. But it was a sequence by him in the final 1:30 of the game that proved to be the difference.
After a defensive rebound, he turned and found a streaking Stuckey on a full-court pass for a layup to tie it. He had a ferocious put-back dunk on a missed Will Bynum layup to give the Pistons the lead. He switched onto Anthony on defense, forced him into a tough shot, turned and pulled down the defensive rebound in traffic. After a Bynum miss at the other end, Wilcox tipped the ball to Prince, allowing him to corral an offensive rebound. Bynum was fouled and hit two free throws to put the lead at four with only seconds remaining.
Wilcox is maddeningly inconsistent, but he’s still just 29-years-old. His athleticism and size made him a lottery pick even though his basketball IQ had yet to develop in college. As a NBA veteran, he’s never become a reliable rotation player, which has been a disappointment. But the tools — size, strength and athleticism — are still there and those things will earn him another NBA contract, especially with performances like this.
Villanueva keeps them in it
The Pistons were out-scored 25-15 in the third quarter and blew a halftime lead. Those things are not surprising — it’s been a trend the last two seasons. But the Pistons responded, led by Charlie Villanueva. Villanueva hit three huge 3-pointers in the third quarter and scored 14 points in one of his better performances since the first half of the season. His minutes have dwindled as the season has progressed. The key for him is simply activity. When he’s active, when he runs the floor, when he’s engaged defensively, his shot tends to go in more often. His threes were a big spark in the Pistons run to overcome New York’s lead.
Getting one over on Billups
Stuckey out-smarted one of the smartest veterans in the league in Billups, sneaking behind him on a Billups miss and sprinting for a layup after Wilcox found him with a full-court pass.
Stuckey wasn’t the playmaker he was against Toronto, finishing with two assists and four turnovers, but he shot 6-for-10, played great defense and pushed the pace all night.
Going small in the backcourt
I’m not going to start another Bynum debate in the comments. But his speed was exactly what the Pistons needed tonight. As Pistons fans know, Billups struggles to defend quick guards. In fact, with Billups, Toney Douglas and Landry Fields, the Knicks have a pretty slow backcourt overall. As soon as Bynum came into the game, he got into the lane constantly. He didn’t shoot well (1-for-6), but he finished with five assists and zero turnovers in 12 minutes because his speed bothered New York’s defense so much that he created wide open looks for teammates.
Kuester went with three guards in the fourth — Bynum, Stuckey and Ben Gordon. The lineup worked perfectly, speeding up the Pistons as both Stuckey and Bynum had the ability to turn, run the ball up and start the offense. With Gordon and Villanueva on the floor, both could run and spot up, spreading out the Knicks defense, and Wilcox, their best big at running the floor, was trailing on every play, crashing the offensive glass.
I’ve long been an advocate of seeing Bynum and Stuckey get more minutes together and tonight was was a perfect example of why — few teams have the speed in their backcourt to keep track of both of those guys.
Collectively, the Pistons roster has never made sense. But using creative lineups and encouraging a faster pace make the Pistons infinitely more fun to watch and allows them to cause some mismatches for a change rather than being the ones who are constantly exploited by other teams.