Pistons coach Maurice Cheeks, right, talking to Will Bynum, called Friday's loss to Memphis a "good game." (Clarence Tabb Jr. / Detroit News)
Memphis — When Maurice Cheeks stepped out of his team’s locker room to meet with media after a draining overtime loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday night, you couldn’t tell from the wide eyes and near smile that his team squandered what could’ve been a sure win on the road.
Cheeks looked as if he’d discovered something he wasn’t quite sure of — like a father who just found out his oldest son could handle himself in a treacherous environment. The smile indicated he gained a measure of respect for the 12 men in the locker room.
“It was a good game,” Cheeks said. “As I told our guys, this was the Western Conference (finalists) last year and we were right there with them.
It was the Pistons’ 19th straight road loss to a Western Conference opponent, and if we’re counting road wins against quality, playoff-caliber competition, you’d be better off pulling up basketball-reference.com as opposed to your mental Rolodex, because it’s been that long.
“It’s gonna end, I guarantee you,” Cheeks said with a smile. “I liked our game, man. I liked our effort. Fun game, man. Fun.”
Right time to learn
The Pistons surely made mistakes that can keep players up at night if this were in April or a playoff game.
Chauncey Billups missed a couple free throws he usually makes, and the Pistons had 19 turnovers, 12 of them coming from Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Will Bynum. But there was no despair in the locker room.
It’s November, not April and these lessons are the easiest to learn.
"I think it's very safe, even early, to say that this won't be the same as it's been the last four years, man,” Billups said. “That's very apparent already. We're going to compete every night. We're going to compete every single night and at least have a chance to win."
Contrast it to the first game of the tumultuous 2010-11 season, with a much different cast of characters and with the ill-equipped John Kuester on the sideline. The Pistons lost a seven-point lead with 1:40 to go against the New Jersey Nets on opening night.
The locker room was as quiet as a morgue. Even Pistons president Joe Dumars, who’s never been the outward type publicly, looked dejected as he sat in an adjoining room afterward. For as much as players preach the “one game at a time” mantra, it was an early sign the season wasn’t going to go as planned.
The Pistons lost their first five games, and as many fans can recall, it was arguably the most drama-filled season in their history.
Even last season, when the Pistons suffered their worst loss since 1995 in San Antonio, a 39-point whipping, Bynum was asked could things get any worse.
“I don’t know; we still have 20 games left,” he said, without a hint of sarcasm.
Make no mistake: The Pistons weren’t preening and flexing Friday about staying in a game with the Western Conference finalists from a year ago, but there’s only so much a team can learn about itself in the preseason, where there’s very little to no adversity.
Games like these — even losses, begin to form a team’s character. Players begin to trust one another when they realize nobody’s backing down.
Hanging in a game against the Grizzlies is a lot different than playing heads-up with the L.A. Clippers or Golden State Warriors, teams just as feared as the Grizzlies for Western Conference supremacy.
But playing against those teams means it’s likely going to be a run-and-gun affair, not a physically grueling game. Teams who beat the Grizzlies make collective decisions to match their physicality because the only way the Grizzlies win is to grind it out until their opponent mentally submits.
The Pistons — whether it was Monroe diving on the floor multiple times for loose balls and deciding getting punked by Zach Randolph wasn’t an option, or Stuckey taking a bad poke in the eye from Tony Allen to keep on ticking — helped the Pistons charge back from a 10-point deficit in the third to take control until the waning moments.
Stuckey nor Monroe disagreed with the observation it could’ve been Monroe’s best defensive game as a pro, as he’s embracing taking more chances defensively as opposed to being sieve-like on the block. Considering Monroe is in a contract year, when most players tend to back off playing hard on defense for fear of injury, it's revealing part of his competitive character — which was never in question anyways.
“It was gritty, that’s the way we’ll play all season,” Cheeks said. “We knew they would be tough. Our guys were there the whole time.”
The Grizzlies play in the West, but are similarly built — and somewhat play like teams the Pistons must compete against night after night, the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers. There’s no delusions of grandeur about how you’re gonna beat them if you’re to escape with a win.
Heck, as Friday proved, there’s no guarantee you’ll walk away with a win if you check off every acceptable box in the effort department, but at least it’s not a concern.
No wonder Cheeks was smiling. Perhaps he knows something we’ll all find out soon enough.