Precious Practice Time

Pistons get 3 days to work on execution issues behind late struggles

Brandon Jennings
The Pistons were able to take advantage of their recent practice time.
Dan Lippitt (NBAE/Getty)
The Pistons owned fourth quarters in Chauncey Billups’ first go-around as a Piston and he was at the center of it. Point guards or superstars who have the ball in their hands in all those lonely moments always are. Teammates take their cues from those players. If he projects an aura of confidence and calmness, so do their teams.

“There’s no question about it,” Mr. Big Shot said after Thursday’s practice, one he declared the best one the Pistons have had this season. Of course, the games have come so fast and furious – 33 of them in the first 62 days of the NBA season – that the Pistons simply haven’t had many days available to hold truly meaningful practices.

“At some point, your team is going to take on the personality of your head coach and your point guard. You don’t know what point of the season that is. But I think it’s inevitable that most teams take on that personality.”

While the Pistons can use the virtual minicamp now afford them – they get two more practice days before their next game, a Sunday home matinee against Memphis – to work on fixing issues of execution, perhaps the down time also will help heal their bruised psyches. Over their last five home games, the Pistons have been outscored by 13.8 points a game in the fourth quarters. They’re 1-4 over that span with the only win coming against Brooklyn despite seeing a 20-point lead cut to two.

In that time, they’ve also lost to Portland in overtime after leading by 13 in the fourth quarter, to Charlotte after leading by 20 and being outscored 41-17 in the fourth quarter, and to Washington after leading by a dozen in the fourth.

For the season, the Pistons are a league-worst minus-3.2 points per game in fourth quarters, which is 50 percent worse than the 29th-ranked Charlotte Bobcats. But the fourth-quarter failings are even more pronounced at home, where the Pistons are minus-5.5 in fourth quarters over 17 games.

“We have to understand, the fourth quarter is just a totally different game,” Billups said. “No matter the score, you’ve got to play the fourth quarter like it’s zero-zero. You’ve got to be aggressive. So many times we start playing not to lose when we get up and that takes your aggressiveness away because you don’t want to make a mistake. Well, you end up making a mistake anyway.

“One thing that happened today in our practice that was great – because we finally got some practice time – was we worked on a lot of execution stuff. That’s something we had a lot of slippage on because we haven’t had any practices, just a lot of games. This practice time is going to be very beneficial to us in terms of us trying to execute in the fourth.”

Mo Cheeks is running the point on the education of Jennings as a point guard. Along the lines of Billups stressing the need for the Pistons to stay aggressive in fourth quarters, Cheeks is in Jennings’ ear urging him to explore every opportunity to make plays with the game on the line. Billups, who a decade ago underwent the same transition under Larry Brown, knows experience is the critical element for Jennings.

“Experience is always the best teacher,” he said. “He’s just got to go through it. I can talk to him and tell him the best I can, but there’s nothing like being out there. … I think he’s come a long way this year. He’s really trying to be an all-the-way point guard and not just a scoring point guard. I think there are some games and some times when it’s a tough mix for him. He doesn’t really know when to do what, but that’s a part of the process. But I think guys knowing he’s making a concerted effort to do that, that’s how you win your team over.”

Besides the needed mental break and the bounce the Pistons hope to get from three practice days, Jennings’ fourth-quarter options would come a little more clearly into focus if Rodney Stuckey is able to bounce back from his shoulder injury. The Pistons’ fourth-quarter woes began pretty much when Stuckey hurt his shoulder in the overtime loss to Portland.

He didn’t practice on Thursday and he’s considered day to day, though an MRI last weekend revealed no structural damage.

“That’s part of the NBA,” Cheeks said. “It gives guys opportunities to make play. Guys go out, people get hurt, people get in four trouble and you have to adjust and make plays. The guys out on the floor have to make plays.”

Maybe those plays will be a little easier for them to make in the new year, given the benefit of precious practice time and rest and recovery for nicks and bruises, not to mention a mental health break.

“I went home and a lot of guys went home and everybody came back today like, ‘I needed that, man. I needed that,’ ” Billups said. “I needed to hit that restart button, get away from it a little bit. Because of that, I think we had our best practice of the season today.”