Fourth-quarter toughness returns in Pistons win over Cleveland

For the second straight preseason game, the Pistons looked out of sync defensively, exhibited poor shot selection and talent-wise looked to be on par with a Cleveland team that was the league’s bottom feeder last season. But I don’t care about any of that for the moment. For the first time in what seems like years, the Pistons showed toughness down the stretch in a close game and came from behind to win on the road. That was not a common occurrence in the John Kuester era, and I know this game doesn’t count, so I’ll try not to get too exuberant.

After getting beat on the glass by Cleveland Saturday, the Pistons out-rebounded the Cavs 46-43 tonight, and a big reason why is their guards were unafraid to mix it up. Brandon Knight, Will Bynum and Rodney Stuckey all crashed the defensive glass in the fourth quarter, pulling in multiple rebounds to help the Pistons erase a Cleveland lead. Bynum also made a nice play to get an offensive rebound and put-back on a Greg Monroe miss to cut the lead to one with :08 seconds left.

The Pistons made two impressive defensive plays on attempted in-bounds plays late. After Bynum cut the lead to one, the defense forced Cleveland to use a timeout as the Cavs couldn’t get the ball in-bounds under the basket. Then, after the timeout, Cleveland again struggled to get the ball in and a bad Luke Harangody pass was deflected and stolen by Knight.

Bynum pushed the ball up and, in non-Bynum like fashion, made the right decision by slowing up a bit and hitting a cutting Austin Daye, who was fouled and went to the line for what proved to be the game-winning free throws. I’d grown so used to seeing Bynum attack the basket on similar plays so often that it surprised me he didn’t get tunnel vision and had the awareness to look for the trailing Daye.

Lawrence Frank drew up two nice plays late in the game out of timeouts that got the Pistons good shots. On one, Monroe caught the ball in the post and found Knight for an open three with a nice cross-court pass. Knight missed the shot, which would’ve put the Pistons up one with :14 seconds left, but it was as open a look late in the game as any team could ask for. The second play resulted in Monroe catching the ball near the basket with only one defender to beat. Although Monroe took an awkward looking shot, the way everyone had cleared out on the play allowed Bynum to sneak in and get the offensive board.

It was far from a flawless performance — a defensive miscommunication on Cleveland’s final play resulted in a wide open 10-footer for Harangody, but he missed at the buzzer. At this point though, no one is expecting close to flawless out of the Pistons. After watching the team the last three seasons, most fans will simply be satisfied with effort and toughness on a night to night basis. Tonight was a step in the right direction.

Austin Daye is going to play a lot

Regardless of which lead guard is on the floor — Stuckey, Knight or Bynum — Daye’s presence on the court makes them better. Daye was, at times, a train wreck tonight, particularly when he tried to take more than a couple of dribbles. When the ball isn’t in his hands, though, he makes all three of Detroit’s penetrating guards more dangerous. All three have a tendency to attack the basket even when a shot isn’t there and all three tend to get caught in situations where the passing angles aren’t great. Daye helps alleviate this a bit. He frequently gets himself into position to catch and shoot quickly and, at 6-foot-11, he’s an easier target to hit with a wild pass than a diminutive perimeter player like Ben Gordon, for example.

Through two preseason games, Daye has had moments where he looked lost. He’s also scored a relatively effortless looking 18.5 points per game. Daye will make plenty of mistakes this season, but the Pistons are clearly going to need his offense and shooting quite often.

Greg Monroe’s offense is a work in progress

Monroe looked incredibly uncomfortable with his back to the basket. His footwork was awkward. He’s not quite strong enough to back his man all the way to the basket and he’s not quite athletic enough to catch and make quick, explosive moves to either shoot over or go around his defender. He seemed much more comfortable catching the ball away from the basket where he can face up. He moves much faster and makes more decisive moves with the ball when he’s facing or in the high post than when the Pistons try to go to him deep inside.

His defensive rebounding was solid for the second straight game, but he was surprisingly shut out on the offensive glass. He had at least one offensive rebound in all but six games after November last season when his workload increased, so hopefully this is nothing to be concerned about. Also, on the positive side, his free throw stroke looks much better this season. He seems more relaxed at the line and he was getting more arc on his shot. If his form looks that good all season, he’ll shoot much better than the 62 percent mark he had at the line as a rookie.

The leadership question

There were two players whose body language I paid close attention to tonight: Knight and Tayshaun Prince. For Prince, the reasoning is pretty simple. He hated the disarray of the last two seasons and hated the losing. Although he played consistently most of the season, his frustrations were clearly visible in his body language. There were times he glared at young teammates who made silly mistakes in games. There were times he yelled at John Kuester when he made mistakes. There were times when he just looked really disinterested.

I didn’t see those things tonight. I know this was just the first preseason game. I know that, after signing a generous extension, Prince should have nothing to be displeased about. But this is something that will be important to watch this season. Prince is one of the most intelligent players in the NBA, and if he’s actively engaged with his young teammates, teaching them the game, teaching them the correct defensive rotations or just little nuances that he has understood so well from his experience playing on championship level teams, he’ll become an extremely valuable resource. Tonight, he was engaged, he was talking to young teammates on the bench, he was greeting teammates as they came back to the bench for timeouts and he genuinely looked much happier than he has looked in years.

As for Knight, part of earning minutes at point guard on any team is earning the trust and support of teammates. I don’t know how vocal he is, but his toughness and energy was infectious. His hands were in passing lanes. He was diving on the floor. He was pushing the pace. He was looking to distribute and set up shots for teammates. With Prince, Ben Wallace and a few others on the team, the need for Knight to be vocally assertive isn’t a pressing one. His shot selection was questionable and he made a few errant passes, but if his style and energy can rub off on teammates in a positive way when he’s on the court as it did tonight, he’s going to play big minutes, whether he’s making mistakes or not.

Macklin makes his case

If the Pistons were not so thin up front, Vernon Macklin would be an even longer shot to make the team than he already is as a late second-round pick. But as we know, the team has little depth up front and one of their veteran bigs, Jason Maxiell, didn’t play well tonight, grabbing just three rebounds and turning the ball over three times in just over 20 minutes. Macklin, on the other hand, hustled, grabbed five rebounds and didn’t make too many mistakes in his first extended minutes with the Pistons. If Macklin can hustle and rebound, that will be enough to get a few minutes a game on this team. Wallace will be limited this season because of his age. Maxiell has not yet shown that his massive decline last season was a fluke. Jonas Jerebko fouled out for the second straight game. Minutes are there for the taking if Macklin can make positive plays when he gets chances.

The guard picture

There were several things to like about the way the guards played for the Pistons tonight. Knight was aggressive. Bynum, Knight and Stuckey helped on the glass. Stuckey was a monster attacking the basket, getting to the line and making 10 free throws. And Frank showed a lot of creativity with the lineup. I don’t know if Frank will ever use a Bynum-Knight-Stuckey three guard lineup during the regular season because the trio will have obvious defensive problems, but they sure did give the Pistons a surge of energy for a few minutes tonight. They are three of the faster guards in the league, all three are fearless (sometimes to a fault) when attacking the basket and all three, although not great defenders, can use their quickness to get in passing lanes and Knight and Stuckey have long arms that bother smaller opposing guards.

If those three, along with Daye, are getting heavy minutes and being used interchangeably during the season, I think the Pistons will be fun to watch, even if they’ll be a little erratic. The problem is Ben Gordon was missing, and there’s no telling how many minutes he’s going to get as the team’s highest-paid player during the season. I don’t think anyone watching tonight’s game missed Gordon all that much with the tenacity Knight, Bynum and Stuckey played with.

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Tags: Austin Daye Ben Gordon Ben Wallace Brandon Knight Greg Monroe Jonas Jerebko Lawrence Frank Rodney Stuckey Tayshaun Prince Vernon Macklin Will Bynum

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