Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Life Begins at 40

40 points. It has been brewing for a while now. Throughout the month of December, Rodney Stuckey has been scorching the nets at a ridiculous rate. The 2nd year guard has been getting to the hoop at will. His jump shot, at one time considered to be his weak link, has improved dramatically, right in front of our eyes. With his shooting percentage hovering around 60% for the month, an explosion from Stuckey was bound to happen very soon. He just needed to get the shot attempts, and the rest would take care of itself. 40 points later, it was possibly a career changing night for #3.

It was clear early in the game tonight that Rodney Stuckey was simply in no mood to mess around. No more losses to middling teams like the 76ers and Jazz. No more settling for jumpers when this team is obviously built to run and outscore the other club. In the 1st quarter, Stuckey got off to a hot start by driving for layups on 3 of 4 possessions. Timeout, Bulls...Vinnie Del Negro needed to find a solution to stopping the possessed guard from Eastern Washington. A pattern was developing. He tacked on 5 more points the rest of the quarter, culminating in a picturesque three-point play where Stuckey displayed a beautiful left hand while taking the hit from Luol Deng (or whoever that is impersonating Deng this season).

The first 6 minutes of the 2nd quarter represented the only stretch of time all night that the Bulls would not be lit up by Mr. Stuckey. After all, he was on the bench. When he returned, and for the next 3 quarters, it was more of the same. Stuckey driving to the bucket time after time, creating contact and hanging in midair for what seemed like an eternity while controlling his body and nestling the ball in off the glass. When the defender took a step off, daring Stuckey to shoot, he burned 'em.

Vinnie Del Negro is another of the 1st year head coaches that seem so common this year in the NBA. The guy might have a nice career on the sidelines, but he won't forget this night for a long time. Del Negro is the kind of coach that not only seems to live and die with each game, but with each possession. Each time Stuckey dropped in a basket Tuesday, Del Negro slumped his shoulders and turned to his assistants as if to say, "What more can we do?" Not to diminish Stuckey's night in any way, but let's just say Coach Del Negro did not exactly reinvent the wheel with his coaching innovations against the Pistons. When a player gets in a zone like Stuckey was, coaches will often send a double team to force the ball out of his hands. 'Make somebody else beat you,' the saying goes. There were maybe 2-3 times all night that Stuckey was trapped on a pick-and-roll and forced to dish. Otherwise, it was mostly one man preventing him from putting the ball in the hole. And clearly, Stuckey was blistering anybody the Bulls put in front of him.

-Derrick Rose, #1 overall pick, savior of the Bulls franchise...phhhh...I liked you better when they called you Darius Washington, Jr.
-Larry Hughes took a shot at him. After all, he did lead the NBA in steals a few years back. Tonight, the only thing he stole was a paycheck.
-Thabo Sefolosha, the lanky guard from Switzerland known for his defense, proved two things tonight. One, he has no business guarding Rodney Stuckey 1-on-1 unless they are the last 2 guys left on Earth, and even then, he's better off going zone. Two, the only things that should come from Switzerland are watches and tennis players.
-Lindsey Hunter, or as Doug Collins would describe, "The best on-ball defender in the history of this league. Just a great person. If I ever had a son, I would want him to be just like Lind...oh right, I already have a son. Well, you get the point." These things might have been true 10-12 years ago, back when Collins was still representing the boys in Teal. But tonight, Lindsey Hunter was clean shaven, 20 pounds overweight, and helpless in stopping the man he might have thought he was once going to turn out to be...Rodney Stuckey.

In Monday's column, I talked about Michael Curry and his questionable coaching in the Atlanta loss this weekend. In that game, Curry sat Stuckey for almost half of the deciding quarter after he had just torched the Hawks in the 3rd, bringing the Pistons back from a big hole. Tonight, the circumstances took care of themselves. Allen Iverson suffered a minor injury early in the 2nd half, thus removing any chance of Sunday's history repeating itself. Stuckey played the entire 2nd half, looking fresher as everybody else wore down. When the Bulls went on a 12-0 run to start the 3rd to cut the lead to one, momentum seemed to be all on the side of the visitors. Now was the time for Stuckey to unleash his entire arsenal of skills on the now-confident, soon to be stunned once again, Chicago Bulls. Bombs away from downtown, Stuckey's only 3 of the night. Loses his defender and drops in another layup on a nice feed from buddy Arron Afflalo. A minute later, he drove the paint again and scored. The 1 point game was now 11, the crowd was on its feet, and Vinnie Del Negro did the only thing he could all night to stop the unstoppable Stuckey, if only for a few minutes. He called time out.

If there is a bigger picture to this game, it is the Allen Iverson trade and what it means in terms of the development of Rodney Stuckey and the prospects of this year's Pistons. I was never one to be in favor of the trade. Like most Piston fans, I had become attached to Chauncey over the years. The first "big shot," a 3 over Chris Mills to beat Golden State, the near half-courter against New Jersey, the Finals MVP...he was everything you wanted in a Piston. But I could understand if Joe Dumars decided this team needed some kind of shakeup. This current group may have topped out, and almost seemed resigned to lose every year in the Eastern Conference Finals.

My main problem is, with Dumars knowing even better than any of us how good Rodney Stuckey can be if given the opportunity, why deal Chauncey for a guy like Iverson? A guy who has made a career out of making things happen for himself, but not for others. I don't recall him doing much for the careers of young superstars in Jerry Stackhouse and Carmelo Anthony. He is a player that needs a certain number of touches a game to stay happy. Essentially, when you are an Allen Iverson team, you win or lose with the rock in his hands. But if it's in his hands, how can it be in Stuckey's hands as well? Short answer: it can't. Tuesday night, Piston fans got a glimpse of what could be if young Stuckey were given this kind of freedom on a nightly basis. Allen Iverson is still a valued member of this team and his production is needed for them to do anything special this year. But the sooner he understands that he cannot be "The Man" anymore and that he needs to defer to Stuckey on a nightly basis, the better off everyone will be. Essentially, we have an "Old Stuckey" and a "Young Stuckey" on this about we let the young fella do his thing?

When the dust settles on this season, someone might look back on this game as just 1 of 82 on a never-ending NBA schedule. But it could end up meaning a lot more. Ever since Rodney Stuckey was drafted from little known Eastern Washington in 2007, we've been told that he has all of the skills to be one of the greats. In flashes, these skills would be displayed. At some point, all of it would come together, we hoped. The athleticism, the strength, the touch, the aggressiveness, and the will to be the best player on the court at all times. On Tueday night at the Palace, everything came together for the man his teammates simply call "Stuck." Only, on this night, he was anything but.

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