What to Watch
Full-strength Stuckey arms Pistons with lineup flexibility
Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)
Mo Cheeks has been around the NBA for 36 years. It’s possible his memory needs a little jogging, but when he says he’s “never seen anything like it” – the two five-day gaps in the schedule the Pistons have endured over the past 18 days – his point is clear. This is weird.
But he feels a little better about the Pistons coming out of this five-day break than the one that carried them into 2014, when they entered it having lost three straight games and by an average of 16 points.
“I feel a little bit better,” Cheeks said after a fourth consecutive practice day on Thursday. “We got a lot accomplished out of these days, some things we needed to work on.”
“The coaches have been on us,” Rodney Stuckey said. “We’ve been practicing hard. Guys have been getting here early, an hour before practice.”
Stuckey, it turns out, is one of the reasons Cheeks feels a little better. When he’s been healthy this season, Stuckey’s been superb, the de facto go-to guy for the season’s first month. But health has proven elusive for Stuckey, who missed training camp with a broken thumb, two games with left knee tendinitis and five more with a painful right shoulder.
Stuckey averaged 16.9 points for his first 17 games, then scored six over his next two games while trying to play through the knee injury. He came back strong from that, scoring 54 points over three games before the onset of his shoulder pain during the Dec. 15 overtime loss to Portland. He tried to play the next night in Detroit’s win at Indiana, but scored just two points in 16 minutes.
Stuckey sat out the next two games, then returned for the next four but averaged just seven points and clearly wasn’t himself before sitting the next three. He then scored eight points at Toronto before going scoreless in just three minutes last Friday at Philadelphia. Stuckey looked more like himself the following night – the Pistons’ most recent game – but still wasn’t back to full strength.
He is now, he says, and getting Stuckey back to his pre-injury form will be the surest benefit of the five-day break.
“Rodney’s getting back to where he was,” Brandon Jennings said Thursday. “I think the whole week of practice helped him out a whole lot.”
“It’s healed,” said Stuckey, who said he believes his injury was a bruised bursa sac that caused sharp pain whenever the joint encountered resistance. “I’m happy where it’s at right now. I feel strong, feel like myself again. We had a good four days of practice and I feel good.”
Besides Stuckey’s health and level of play, two other things bear watching tonight to see what carryover effect they’ll have from the back-to-back wins over Philadelphia and Phoenix that carried the Pistons into their latest hiatus.
It was largely driven by matchups last weekend when Cheeks went more frequently with only two of the three frontcourt starters at any given time. In theory, the Pistons could allocate 32 minutes apiece to all three players and never have all three or fewer than any two of them on the court. In practice, that’s not likely, though Cheeks can limit their time together by bringing Singler off the bench for one of them a few minutes earlier each quarter; he’s generally been going to Singler with about four minutes left in the first and third quarters.
Cheeks isn’t a coach who leans on blueprints and formulas, so his response when I asked him about that possibility earlier this week was no surprise: “I don’t necessarily want to go into a game and say I’m going to bring Kyle in two minutes earlier if I’ve got three guys out there playing really well. I don’t want to pre-empt myself before it actually happens. But if one or two of them are not playing well, you can always bring Kyle in and see what you’re going to get.”
The flip side is Cheeks very much believes if something isn’t broken, don’t try to fix it. So the success the Pistons experienced with smaller lineups last weekend – often with Singler at power forward and either Stuckey or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope at small forward down the stretch – means we probably haven’t seen the last of it.
And that will meet with the approval of his players.
“It’s really good for us,” Jennings said. “The last five minutes of the game, you want scorers in the game. You want guys who can handle the rock and guys who can make plays.”
“We’re just trying to have guys out there who can create, spread the floor a little bit and create and get shots,” Stuckey said. “We’ve been trying to figure that out. It’s been working, so we’ve got to continue to get better at it.”
“We found it out of necessity in the Philly game and the Phoenix game, but nonetheless we found it,” Cheeks said. “We found it in Brandon and Will and Kyle and KCP and Stuckey and different guys out there. We have to be conscious of those things, regardless of the reason we found them.”
Again, it’s a look the players believe in.
“It’s always good to play with other ballhandlers that can also take the pressure off myself,” Jennings said. “I’m just going to go with it. It’s been two games in a row since we won like that. Let’s just keep it rolling.”
With Stuckey proclaiming himself fully fit again, Cheeks will have another option if the undersized Jennings-Bynum tandem proves defensively challenged.
“I don’t think it was a point of who the other guy was,” Cheeks said of the backcourt dynamic, “it was a point of being another ballhandler out on the floor and it just happened to be Will at the time. It doesn’t have to be Will.”
“I love having the ball in my hand,” Stuckey said of the likelihood that he, too, will pair with Jennings and allow the Pistons to exploit Jennings’ slashing ability while playing off of the ball. “It gives me the opportunity to go downhill and attack. It also gives time for Brandon to rest and he’s a great shooter, so he can spot up and make some shots for us.”