On Tuesday, the Pistons beat the Lakers despite LA’s big men manhandling Detroit’s. Against the Hawks on Friday, Detroit’s frontcourt compensated for a forgettable performance by Detroit’s guards with a dominant performance in a win over Atlanta.
The Pistons trailed at the half, and actually were out-played by the Hawks in three of four quarters Friday. But for a long enough stretch in the third quarter and early in the fourth, the Pistons were so good that their struggles early in the game and a few miscues late were irrelevant.
Tayshaun Prince, Jason Maxiell and Greg Monroe all turned in great performances against an over-matched Atlanta frontline that was missing Al Horford and defensive presence Jason Collins. Jonas Jerebko had one of his best performances of the season off the bench and Ben Wallace had a retro, forceful pin-block against the backboard on a Marvin Williams layup attempt.
The Pistons were only dominant over a short stretch of this game. The rest of it was pretty full of mistakes. Even their players who played well were not mistake-free. The positive, though, and a real sign of growth for this team as a whole since the beginning of the season is that when players made mistakes — even the veteran players — they worked to atone for them.
With less than three minutes left and the Pistons up four, Prince held the ball virtually an entire possession despite the fact that the Pistons had great success getting the ball inside and moving without the ball. With the shot clock running down, he settled for a contested jumper from the top of the key that missed badly. Atlanta pushed the ball and Prince’s man, Joe Johnson, beat him down the court for a layup to cut the lead to two.
It’s safe to say Prince made up for that series. With Detroit down one and :24 seconds left, Prince made a running jumper in the lane to give the Pistons the lead. Then, on the final possession of the game, he and Rodney Stuckey combined to play fantastic defense on Johnson, forcing him into a tough 3-point attempt that missed as time expired.
Monroe was sluggish early but surged in the third quarter, getting great interior position on virtually every possession and using an array of moves to finish inside against an Atlanta front line that bothered him early with its length, particularly Josh Smith. With the Pistons up one and less than a minute left, Monroe came up with what should have been a game sealing play: he grabbed an offensive rebound. The correct play in that instance, of course, is to kick the ball back out and run clock. Monroe was under duress, but still had open teammates he could’ve passed to. Instead, he attempted to put the ball on the floor in traffic and get to the basket. Jeff Teague came up with an easy steal and drove the length of the floor for a layup.
Although Monroe didn’t play a big role in the closing seconds of the game, he did make a couple of nice plays that could’ve easily turned into disasters. Detroit had to in-bound the ball twice on its final possession, once after a timeout and once after Johnson gave Atlanta’s last remaining foul. Both times, Stuckey threw passes with a little too much on them that were a little too high, and both times, Monroe corralled them in traffic.
While most of the team had its ups and downs in the game, Maxiell was just one big up. He kept the Pistons close when Atlanta was making everything early by also making everything — Maxiell hit his first seven shots, many of them perimeter jumpers (it helped that Atlanta inexplicably refused to put a hand in his face even after he hit shot after shot). He was consistent the entire game, he was all over the offensive glass and he helped harass Smith into an 8-for-19 shooting game. He was also key down the stretch, hitting two hook shots in the paint and getting a huge put-back slam in the final five minutes when the Hawks tightened their defense some and the Pistons weren’t finding as many good looks as they were in the third quarter.
Maxiell finished with 19 points (a season high) and 12 rebounds (tying a season high) and combined with Prince, Monroe and Jerebko to shoot 31-for-46. Monroe’s rapid development has been the most important aspect of this season, but Maxiell’s performance has been the most surprising. Of all the Pistons’ pricey veterans, Maxiell seemed least likely to return to his old form — his game was nearly 100 percent predicated on quickness and athleticism, things that were weakened by his weight gain the last couple seasons and the fact that those skills typically erode quickly in big men as they age.
Not only is he in the best shape he’s been in in quite some time, but he’s also obviously worked on his game. He’s always had the ability to hit a 15-footer, but never reliably and it was never a shot he took with a lot of confidence. This season, he’s not only making that shot, he’s not passing it up when teams like Atlanta give it to him. His contributions this season have been fun to watch and a pleasant surprise for a franchise in desperate need of a few of those.
Stuckey doesn’t dominate, he facilitates
Getting the best of Kobe Bryant in maybe your team’s most-watched game of the season will have a tendency to ratchet up expectations, so Stuckey following up his 34-point thrashing of the Lakers with a modest 11 on 4-for-7 shooting against the Hawks might lead to some “here he goes again with the inconsistency” catcalls from the more cynical among us Pistons fans. Not so though.
I’ve harped on the consistency thing with Stuckey as much as anyone, but for me, it has never been about consistency with his numbers. I frankly don’t expect Stuckey to be competing for scoring titles or things like that. What I expect for him is to be a little better version of the player we’ve seen over much of his career: a versatile guy who can carry the scoring burden on some nights, who can shift over and give productive minutes at point guard and who can spend a good portion of his time physically defending the other team’s best perimeter player.
Against the Lakers, the opportunities were there for him to attack and get his own shot frequently. Against the Hawks, who seemed to be paying more attention to him, the opportunities weren’t there and, to his credit, he didn’t force them. I’m not sure the Stuckey from prior seasons could’ve had that restraint. He picked a few spots, took mostly good shots and finished with seven assists, frequently (and correctly) looking to get the ball inside.
More importantly, he defended. He and Prince, like they did with Bryant the other night, took turns on Joe Johnson. Johnson started the game off by hitting his first three shots, then shot 3-for-9 the rest of the way. It has been said many times over the years, but Stuckey has the tools to be a really good defensive player. It’s just a matter of him unleashing those every night.
Prince is at a point in his career where he simply can’t hold up well on defense if he’s forced to guard the opposing team’s best perimeter guy all night every night. Stuckey has a different skillset than Prince, and when you switch them back and forth, you can make whoever they’re guarding a bit more uncomfortable than if he were facing the same man all night. The scoring against LA was nice, but what the Pistons can really build on is how seriously Stuckey has taken defense these last two games.
Brandon Knight didn’t make a shot against the Lakers. He also went the first two quarters against Atlanta without making one. Since the All-Star Break, he’s shooting just 16-for-49 and just 3-for-16 from 3-point range. He finally got a couple of looks to drop for him in the third quarter as he got in the lane, so hopefully that gets his shot going. He also played pretty solid defense against Teague and, as always, played hard. But he’s also played a lot of minutes this season and with only one season of college basketball and a short training camp to prepare for this, it might be time for the Pistons to consider reeling back his minutes a bit. They even have a guy on the bench in Will Bynum who could maybe play himself into some trade value if he can get a few minutes here and there in relief of Knight to show that he’s healthy.