By Michael Lee
Monday, December 7, 2009
AUBURN HILLS, MICH. -- Flip Saunders made his first trip back to the Palace of Auburn Hills since the Detroit Pistons dismissed him in June 2008. Saunders, who lost in the Eastern Conference finals in each of his three seasons with the Pistons, said he didn't expect to hear raucous cheers when he was announced on Sunday. But what he heard may have been more surprising: apathy.
A small crowd at the arena greeted Saunders mostly with silence. But as the game carried on, one Pistons fan behind the Washington Wizards' bench started heckling him.
"Hey Flip, you grooming Sam Cassell?" the fan shouted. "Michael Curry replaced you after one year as an assistant!"
"How'd that work out?" Saunders replied.
The Pistons certainly have fallen on hard times since Saunders left town, as they suffered a first-round ouster last season and currently play in front of sparse crowds in a building that sold out every game while he was there.
But following the Wizards' 98-94 loss to the Pistons on Sunday, Saunders's team is looking up at Detroit in the standings -- and still experiencing too many nights when they look like an inefficient offensive outfit, even while boasting three former all-stars in Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler.
"Just not getting that overall consistency," Saunders said after the Wizards (7-12) lost their second game in a row. "Maybe it is still a feeling out process."
Butler scored 13 of his team-high 20 points in the fourth quarter, but Arenas and Jamison went scoreless in the final period, going a combined 0 for 7 from the field. A game after scoring a season-high 34 points in an overtime loss to the Toronto Raptors, Arenas scored just eight points, on 3-of-9 shooting, with nine assists.
"He didn't seem to have energy," Saunders said. "I don't know if he was stiff today, but he didn't seem to have that pop. He didn't have what he had last game."
Arenas's night was perhaps summed up by his baffled look with 0.6 of a second remaining, when the officials thought Arenas had fouled Pistons guard Rodney Stuckey (25 points), which would've been Arenas's sixth foul and led to his disqualification. Arenas shrugged and said, "I didn't foul anybody?"
He was right, as Butler was later assessed the foul. But Arenas really didn't seem to be into the game on either end of the floor after scoring four of the Wizards' first six points. "The building was cold," Arenas said. "I never really got into a rhythm. I got two quick fouls and I had to sit for a while. I didn't want to try to force anything. I wasn't in the flow of it."
Jamison was limited to just 13 points, missing 10 of his 14 shots from the floor, with just two rebounds. "Brendan [Haywood] is getting on me about it. It bugs me more that a couple of games ago I had zero," Jamison said. "Part of my game is offensive rebounds, too. I'm not being aggressive as far as second-chance points and things of that nature. It's a tough stretch. I hope I can get out of it, hopefully sooner than later. It's one of those things, that it's not me."
Earl Boykins came off the bench to score 18 points, including eight in the fourth quarter, when he and Butler were the only players who had anything going. Boykins ended a nearly five-minute field goal drought with a three-pointer from the left corner with 7 minutes 41 seconds left in the period, but he later fouled Pistons reserve Charlie Villanueva on a three-pointer, helping him convert the four-point play and give the Pistons an 81-72 lead.
Butler had gone without a field goal attempt in the past two fourth quarters, but he scored six consecutive points to bring the Wizards within one. He later missed a short jump shot, but Haywood (six points, 11 rebounds) rebounded the miss and dunked as the Wizards closed to 85-84 with 3:49 remaining.
But the Wizards couldn't get any closer, as they missed five of their next six shots, and committed two turnovers -- including one when Butler attempted a behind-the-back dribble and the ball squirted off his heel -- over the next three minutes as the Pistons (8-12) pulled away.
"We made a late charge and came a little short. You can appreciate the effort. Guys kept at it, even until the end," Butler said. "I got a little rhythm. I just wasn't able to get us over the hump."
Saunders said he wanted his team to get off to a better start with the team establishing a bad habit of falling behind early in games. The message didn't sink in as the Wizards trailed 48-36 when Jonas Jerebko hit a three-pointer with 4:12 left in the first half, but the Wizards closed out the half on a 13-4 run. But the uphill climb had already begun. "It was one of those nights," Arenas said. "I feel like I'm saying that every night we lose."
The Wizards have lost four consecutive games to Detroit and have not beaten them on the road since Jan. 26, 2007 -- when Saunders was the Pistons' coach.