January 2, 2014 at 1:00 am

Vincent Goodwill

Someone needs to step up for these Pistons

Brandon Jennings has been the reason for some close wins but also has done some puzzling things down the stretch of games. (Clarence Tabb Jr. / Detroit News)

Auburn Hills — An empty Pistons locker room after Monday’s frustrating but somewhat predictable 106-99 loss to the Washington Wizards exemplifies the recent issues that have prevented them from taking advantage of a golden opportunity.

No one had the answers on the floor during yet another fourth-quarter collapse, so it wasn’t shocking to see virtually everyone admit with their absence that there was no defending their latest offensive collapse.

“If things happen over and over and it continues to come about, you’re gonna have anxiety,” coach Maurice Cheeks said. “In order for it to stop, we have to be successful in it, no matter who’s on the floor.”

Make no mistake, nobody’s pointing fingers internally. The players generally like each other and have a common belief that only the Heat and Pacers are definitively better than them in an injury-riddled and drama-filled Eastern Conference.

The Pistons haven’t shown it in the first 33 games, and any talk of “blowing it up” is premature. Certainly, though, tweaks have to be made on the floor and on the sidelines.

A learning process

One reason young teams have such a hard time developing winning habits is because it’s difficult for players who don’t quite know who they are in terms of how they fit in the league to properly fit themselves in a team construct.

Josh Smith and Rodney Stuckey are as close to finished products as anyone, but Smith is playing a position he hasn’t played since he was a tender 21-year-old in his third season. Stuckey currently comes off the bench, but consistency hasn’t been a hallmark for various reasons.

Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe are still learning themselves, with Monroe a little closer to his full potential than Drummond.

Brandon Jennings has been the cause of some close wins but also has done some puzzling things down the stretch of games that make you wonder how painful this learning process will be — especially as a point guard.

Whether these players are too nice to each other, afraid to step on toes while learning each other, remains to be seen, but someone had better be assertive soon.

This season could trend from troublesome to crisis mode in short order. They’re already a season-low five games under .500.

“We gotta start learning in those situations,” veteran guard Chauncey Billups said two weeks ago. “We’re young as a team but I don’t want to see us use young as a crutch. We played well enough to open up a lead, but we should play well enough to maintain it.”

Billups actually made the comments after the Pistons beat the struggling Brooklyn Nets at The Palace in December, but he could’ve said that after any number of losses or even wins that came by a closer margin than justified.

Sense of urgency needed

Not having a go-to guy can be just as much an excuse as their youth, being the fourth-youngest team in the league. Too often they look scattered down the stretch, nearly paralyzed by a team making a late run, unable to find and ride the hot hand, unable to put talented pieces together in order to close games.

This could very well be a bump in the road, a basketball-weary team tired from playing 17 games in December, showing the signs of not having its two best backcourt players on the floor together since training camp began. Or it could be a sign of danger to come.

Opening night, a win over the same Wizards no less, was the first red flag. The Pistons built a comfortable lead, then squandered it, only to have Old Man Billups save them with two backbreaking 3-pointers.

At his advanced age, performances like that should come in handy, to accompany a young player coming into his own. Without Billups, the Pistons lose the season opener and it falls right in line with the rest of these disappointing losses.

Last year’s team didn’t believe in its coach, feeling he was so dedicated to his plan that there was no room for alterations, no room for actual player input. One loss led to three, which led to an embarrassing 1-13 mark in March when the group no longer bothered to show up.

It won’t get that bad with this bunch, but with more talent, there’s an understandable sense of heightened expectations and with that should come a recognition of urgency.

vgoodwill@detroitnews.com
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