November 6, 2013 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Improved Pistons find themselves on wrong end of measuring stick in loss

Auburn HillsChauncey Billups knows a good team when he sees one. He knows a really good team when he plays one.

The 16-year NBA veteran sees one here in Detroit, as he has said more than once since returning for one last run as one of The Palace guards.

But he played one Tuesday night, as the Pistons ran into the league’s last unbeaten team this season — the Indiana Pacers — and came up noticeably short. And long. And left. And right. And short again.

The Pistons couldn’t make shots against arguably the NBA’s best defensive team. And they compounded their problems Tuesday night by taking too many long shots, missing their first 10 three-point attempts and finishing the night a dismal 5-for-25 from beyond the arc.

“There are nights when they go in,” Pistons coach Maurice Cheeks said after his team’s 99-91 loss, “and there are nights when they don’t go in.”

Tuesday was one of those nights, all right. And chances are, there are going to be plenty more like this for this team. Friday night’s home game against Oklahoma City could be another.

But the good news is there aren’t a lot of teams that are as good as these Pacers, who extended the Miami Heat to seven games in last year’s Eastern Conference finals and boast two of the game’s underrated stars in Paul George and Roy Hibbert.

How good are the Pacers, who at 4-0 now are off to their best start in a decade?

“Very good,” said Billups, who certainly would know. “I really believe they’re one of the elite teams in the NBA. They’ve got a lot of good talent, good size. They’ve got some shooters, some stars like Paul (George.) They play defense. They’re a good team. A very good team.”

Room to grow

The Pistons aren’t yet, clearly. They’re bigger — and better — than they were the past few years. They’re obviously more talented.

Unsolicited, Pacers coach Frank Vogel called the Pistons “a really good team” after Tuesday night’s game.

“A team that I think will make the playoffs this year,” he added. “They have monster size and great guards.”

But as a cohesive group, they’ve got plenty more work to do. And if nothing else, Tuesday was evidence of that.

“It’s a good lesson learned, for us, to be able to see where we need to go,” said forward Josh Smith, who struggled with George — and his erratic jump shot — for much of the night.

Smith’s stat line was telltale for the Pistons. He finished with 16 points on 16 shots, including 1-for-6 from three-point range. He blocked three shots and added a steal, but also had four turnovers without an assist.

And it was that kind of night for the Pistons, all the way around.

They trailed by 15 after one quarter, nearly outscored by George alone. They trailed by 11 after three. In between, they actually held a three-point halftime edge over the Pacers, riling up a smallish crowd of 13,401 at The Palace.

But after making one last push to start the fourth quarter, Indiana put this one away with an 18-3 run.

“That’s just knowing each other, fighting some wars together,” Billups said of the Pacers’ resilience. “They’ve been through some tough losses and some tough series and lost and realized how big all these games are. That’s all a product of that. And you can’t get that without going through it.”

You can’t get it without a go-to player, either. And in the end, the Pistons simply didn’t have an answer for George, who poured in 31 points to go along with 10 rebounds, four assists and four steals.

“He did everything I asked him to do and everything you could possibly ask a player to do tonight,” Vogel said.

The Pistons viewed this game as a measuring stick, which is fine.

But by any measure, they’re not ready for this type of challenge yet.

Their new point guard was making his first start Tuesday, and as Billups noted afterward, Brandon Jennings, who missed the preseason with a fractured jaw, still can’t bark out play calls with complete authority yet. He still needs help with that.

And the Pistons still need help finding their touch, if it’s there, from the perimeter. Gigi Datome, the sweet-shooting Italian pro they added this summer, finally saw his first regular-season action Tuesday. But he couldn’t get anything to fall, finishing 1-for-7 from the field and 0-for-4 on 3-pointers. Jennings was 1-for-6 from behind the line as well, and Billups missed all three of his attempts.

And while they played hard enough — and well enough, at times — on the defensive end, holding the Pacers to 4-for-19 shooting in the second quarter, for example, it wasn’t enough to offset that.

“This is a team that’s been together for quite some time,” Smith said of the Pacers.

And for now, it’s a team that reminds the Pistons they’re still a long shot, relatively speaking.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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Pistons forward Josh Smith scored 16 points on 16 shots, but was 1-of-6 from three-point range in the team's 99-91 loss to the Pacers Tuesday. / Clarence Tabb Jr / Detroit News
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