Rodney Stuckey entered his first game of the season for the Pistons on Friday and promptly missed a wide open layup. After that, he proceeded to be the most efficient offensive player either team put on the court and helped the Pistons nearly win a road game against one of the league’s best teams from last season.
Trailing by 10 points with seven minutes remaining in the third quarter, Stuckey scored six points and assisted on a Chauncey Billups three-pointer to help the Pistons out-score Memphis 20-8 in the final minutes of the third and enter the fourth quarter with a lead. Stuckey left the game with just under eight minutes remaining and the Pistons up by two points. He scored 19 points on 8-for-13 shooting in 23 minutes and, along with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who scored 13 points in 18 minutes off the bench, provided the Pistons’ backcourt with a needed spark as Billups struggled shooting the ball (1-for-7) and both Billups and Will Bynum struggled to defend Memphis starters Mike Conley and Tony Allen, who combined for 38 points on 13-for-22 shooting.
The Pistons led by six with just over a minute remaining, allowed Memphis to tie the game, then ran out of steam in overtime. Maurice Cheeks didn’t go back to Stuckey or Caldwell-Pope despite their success and the defensive lapses (and poor shooting, in Billups’ case) of his starters. The loss of a lead in a winnable road game and a perplexing coaching decision are certainly worthy of questioning, but the overall takeaway from this game is a positive. In my mailbag the other way (by the way, keep sending me questions for it — patrickhayes13(at)gmail(dot)com or on Twitter @patrick_hayes), I mentioned that the Grizzlies were a team I was really looking forward to seeing the Pistons play, not just because they’ve had success with a big lineup devoid of shooters like the Pistons are trying to, but because they’ve been one of the league’s toughest, most physical teams over the past few seasons. The Pistons … haven’t been, to put it delicately. Talent deficiency aside, at no point during the past four seasons have the Pistons ever looked like a team that can play with the intensity or physicality necessary to even compete for a playoff spot, let alone get one. I wondered how this more talented version of the Pistons would respond to arguably the league’s most physical team, and the answer is a favorable one.
Greg Monroe is not a good defensive player, but he had some solid defensive possessions against the Grizzlies. Stuckey played under control while at the same time using his strength and quickness to his advantage — he has not always been able to combine those things at the same time throughout his career. Monroe, Andre Drummond and Josh Smith were active defensively, combining for nine steals and five blocks. Caldwell-Pope played confidently in the second half after an erratic first half. Cheeks, for that matter, didn’t bury his rookie on the bench after KCP forced some things that weren’t there on offense in the first half. The overall result is not a favorable one — the Pistons are now winless in their last 19 Western Conference road games (hat tip, Vince Ellis). At some point, good efforts in a tough road loss to a good team will still be net failures, and that point will signify when Pistons basketball is truly back to where it needs to be. But this is still a process and although the Pistons didn’t leave Memphis with a win, they did leave with continued reasons to be optimistic about where they’re headed this season.
|Josh Smith, SF 44 MIN | 7-23 FG | 2-3 FT | 8 REB | 5 AST | 3 STL | 3 BLK | 5 TO | 19 PTS | +5Let’s start with the obvious negative — Smith shot too much. Like, way too much. It wasn’t even just a matter of him missing good looks — that’s frustrating, but I don’t have a huge issue with him taking jumpers within the offense if they’re decent shots. But too many of his shots were forces — 23 shots for a guy struggling is just way too much, especially on a night when Greg Monroe was having some success inside. |
So why the C grade? Everything else. Despite Smith’s poor showing on offense, he still rebounded, he still passed well, he still defended, he still blocked shots and he was a terror in passing lanes. That’s why you live with occasionally ugly shooting nights.
|Andre Drummond, C 48 MIN | 6-13 FG | 0-1 FT | 16 REB | 0 AST | 3 STL | 2 BLK | 1 TO | 12 PTS | -11As we became accustomed to last season, Drummond compiled his statline extremely quietly until you suddenly look at it and realize, “Wow … he has a double-double and I barely even noticed.” His 48 minutes may have been a tad too much (“48 minutes? That’s three games worth of playing time for him!” – Lawrence Frank) — he was winded, particularly in overtime, and was slow to react on Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol buckets inside late. Still … he was enough of a game changer that my “Andre Drummond Defensive Player of the Year” campaign remains viable.|
|Greg Monroe, C 41 MIN | 6-10 FG | 4-4 FT | 8 REB | 1 AST | 3 STL | 0 BLK | 4 TO | 16 PTS | +5As mentioned above, Monroe needed more touches. He was scoring efficiently against every defender Memphis threw at him. More importantly, he battled defensively against Gasol and Randolph. In the first two games of the season, he’s moving his feet better and reacting more quickly on defense than he ever has. That’s still not leading to overall solid defense from him — there are still lapses on his part — but he has no doubt worked on his defense and that’s starting to show.|
|Chauncey Billups, PG 32 MIN | 1-7 FG | 2-4 FT | 1 REB | 6 AST | 0 STL | 1 BLK | 2 TO | 5 PTS | -11Billups struggled shooting, he struggled on defense and he had a clean look at a game winner in regulation that he missed. He ran the offense well as expected. He’s now played more than 30 minutes in two straight games, and that’s probably too much, especially on a night when the Pistons had two other guards having great games.|
|Will Bynum, PG 32 MIN | 7-11 FG | 3-5 FT | 2 REB | 6 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 3 TO | 18 PTS | -15Bynum scored efficiently, he passed well and he made some big plays late in the game on offense. He was also a sieve defensively against Mike Conley.|
|Jonas Jerebko, PF 7 MIN | 0-0 FG | 0-0 FT | 4 REB | 0 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 1 TO | 0 PTS | -7Jerebko didn’t play in the second half. He wasn’t very active on offense in the first half, but he rebounded well … until the final play of the half when he, Monroe and Drummond all stood and watched as Randolph had an offensive rebound fall in his lap for a layup at the buzzer. Not sure who was more at fault on the play, but they were all in position to make that rebound more difficult for Randolph.|
|Kyle Singler, SF 20 MIN | 3-5 FG | 0-0 FT | 1 REB | 0 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 1 TO | 6 PTS | -3Singler shot well, but was a step slow on defense most of the night and was late closing out on shooters. Not the typical solid Kyle Singler effort that we grew accustomed to last season.|
|Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, SG 18 MIN | 4-7 FG | 4-4 FT | 0 REB | 1 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 0 TO | 13 PTS | +8Caldwell-Pope drove into traffic twice in the first half and attempted to get off wild shots that Cheeks looked displeased about. When he returned in the second half, he stopped trying to drive the ball, he knocked down two open jumpers, he made nice cuts and he filled the lane on breaks. Caldwell-Pope’s defense is enough to make him an option to play most nights. If he can focus his offense on simply taking the shots that come to him, he could be earning a lot of minutes by the end of the season.|
|Rodney Stuckey, SG 23 MIN | 8-13 FG | 2-3 FT | 1 REB | 2 AST | 1 STL | 0 BLK | 2 TO | 19 PTS | +14I said most of it above, but Stuckey’s performance was really what made this a competitive game. The Pistons were flat before he entered the game, and his energy clearly rubbed off on teammates, particularly Caldwell-Pope during their minutes together in the third and fourth quarters. Stuckey, for all of his baggage from years of the organization trying to pinpoint exactly what he is, could be an incredibly valuable player for this team if he’s engaged. That, of course, has always been the question with him — whether he can keep his motivation level consistent. This season so far, he’s 1-for-1 in being engaged. This was a very good performance that hopefully signal positive things to come.|
|Maurice CheeksI loved how Cheeks handled Caldwell-Pope. He yanked him in the first half when he was a little erratic, but he still went back to him in the second half. The Pistons have had several coaches in recent years — dating all the way back to Larry Brown — who have been far too impatient with young players. It was great to see Cheeks having confidence in Caldwell-Pope, and I’m glad Caldwell-Pope was able to reward that trust with a good second half performance. |
What I did not like — with the offense struggling late in the fourth and in overtime, Cheeks didn’t go back to Stuckey or Caldwell-Pope. Bynum and Billups will both be important players this season, but both are also situational players. Just because they happen to be starting right now doesn’t mean you have to roll with them no matter what. Play the hot hand or hot hands. I’m not sure it would’ve changed the result of the game, but it certainly would’ve caused Memphis to have to make a late adjustment.