Road Weary

TEAM COLORS

The story of the game in Pistons red, white and blue

White Hot – James Harden wasn’t nearly as dynamic as he was in Houston’s season-opening win at The Palace, when he put up 37 points and 12 assists, but on a night where points were precious, Harden’s 20 were tough for the Pistons to overcome in a 96-82 defeat. The Pistons fell behind by 16 in the first half but closed the half on a 12-2 run to pull within six. They were within four in the third quarter when Houston went on a late 9-0 run to go up by 13 after three; it would become a 22-1 run and blow the game open before the Pistons made it a little closer in the final minutes. Only three Pistons scored in double figures with Brandon Knight’s 12-point fourth quarter giving him 16 to lead them.

BLUE COLLAR – Omer Asik is likely the most unknown impact defender in the NBA, so Greg Monroe had to work for everything he got against one of Houston’s key free-agent acquisitions. After going scoreless in the first quarter, Monroe ground out six points late in the second quarter to spark a 12-2 run and enable the Pistons to chop a 16-point deficit to six at halftime. Monroe, coming off a triple-double and double-double in his last two games, finished with another double-double, posting 12 points and 11 rebounds.

RED FLAG – The Pistons struggled to get to 40 percent shooting for much of the night – they finished exactly at that mark with a late flourish – so it was especially hurtful that they couldn’t get anything at the foul line. Until Brandon Knight got to the line after the game was decided in the fourth quarter, the only Pistons who had shot free throws for the game were centers Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond with four attempts apiece.

HOUSTON – The Pistons hit the road and the road hit back. Though they weren’t necessarily favored to win any of the six games on the season’s longest road trip, coming home without a win to show for it – and a record of 0-7 to tie a franchise low – can’t be anything but dispiriting.

“Extremely, extremely disappointing,” Lawrence Frank said.

“I’m shocked,” Tayshaun Prince said. “Because we put so much work into what we’ve done through training camp and preseason. We went at each other so hard in training camp. Things were getting better and better each day. And to regress now that we’re playing is just tough to swallow.”

The 96-82 loss to Houston in which the Pistons had a four-point game – it was 60-56 with 5:28 left in the third quarter – mushroom into a 23-point spread thanks to a 20-1 run that saw the Pistons go nearly a quarter without a basket was especially frustrating coming off an encouraging performance the previous night at Oklahoma City.

“It’s just disappointing, especially considering what we saw yesterday,” Frank said as the 0-7 start matched the franchise’s worst, last achieved in 1980-81 when the Pistons wound up with the No. 2 pick and took Isiah Thomas in the draft. “A loss is a loss, but if you can build on it, then you can take some positives out of it. Unfortunately, it’s a step backwards for us. We have to do a whole lot better.”

“The way we’re playing right now is unacceptable,” Prince said. “Guys should be upset right now and we’ve just got to do better.”

Prince wouldn’t write off the loss as the byproduct of a team playing its fourth game in five nights on the finale of a 10-day trip that commenced the day after its season-opening loss to the same Houston team.

“There’s something more to it,” he said. “Playing against Oklahoma City yesterday, guys were enthused against them – more energy. Seems like when we’re playing the teams that are so-called lesser opponents, our energy level has dropped. I think we’ve not necessarily been losing games before they start, I just think from jump balls the energy hasn’t been there. We’ve just got to do a better job of understanding what it takes to win.”

The lack of energy was most apparent in the offensive lethargy the Pistons displayed. Only a late spurt that cut Houston’s 26-point lead in half made the final field-goal percentage of 40 respectable; for much of the game it hovered on either side of 35. The Pistons committed 18 turnovers and Frank said the number of possessions that resulted in the shot clock hitting five or under was more than in the rest of the regular season combined.

For the first 45 minutes of the game, the Pistons managed just 10 free throws – six by Andre Drummond, four by Greg Monroe, a clear sign of their lack of aggressiveness.

“Our spacing, our pace, overhandling the ball, turnovers … there was no offensive energy out there,” Frank said. “Think about the amount of times the ball just stuck or we dribble the ball eight, nine, 10 times, dribbling the ball away from the basket, things we have not done. Not that we’ve been an offensive juggernaut, but this one, we don’t even give ourselves a chance. When you can count the number of quality possessions, that’s not a good thing.”

The game was one dry spell on top of another, interrupted by brief stretches of offensive efficiency by a team that looked like what it was: a bedraggled bunch playing its seventh game in 11 days, its fourth in five and the last of an interminable road trip that sent them twice to California and included games in every U.S. mainland time zone but the one they call home.

A stretch of eight straight empty possessions in the first quarter enabled Houston to go on an 8-0 run to take a five-point lead. The Pistons were sputtering along with 27 first-half points until Greg Monroe – who finished with 12 points and 11 boards, his second straight double-double following Wednesday’s triple-double at Sacramento – sparked a brief rally to cut a 16-point deficit to six at halftime.

And for all their offensive woes, they got to the midway point of the third quarter within four points when every ill the 0-7 start revealed coalesced into that 20-1 stretch that ultimately doomed them.

“We talked going in how this was going to be a test of our character,” Frank said. “Four games in five nights, back to back, road trip hasn’t gone real well. Could we build on last night? And we didn’t. It’s a tough one to swallow and we’ll just have to keep on trying to figure some things out.”