Pistons’ Middleton-led rally falls short vs. Mavs

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Khris Middleton made a very convincing case for more playing time Friday night.

The Pistons’ rookie forward out of Texas A&M scored 10 of his new career-high 14 points in the fourth quarter, helping his team come back from a 15-point deficit.

Middleton’s three-pointer with 2:29 left in the fourth actually gave the Pistons their first lead over the Dallas Mavericks since the first quarter, 97-96.

Middleton said he was aware that it was a two-point game at that point.

“Oh, yeah, I definitely was,” Middleton said with a grin. “It was just a great pass. I just made sure I was set, I was in the right spot and he just found me.”

Although the Pistons couldn’t hang on, eventually falling to the Mavericks, 102-99, Middleton’s contributions did not go unnoticed or unappreciated.

“Khris Middleton gave us a real nice lift coming off the bench tonight,” said assistant coach Brian Hill, filling in again for coach Lawrence Frank, whose wife is ill. “I just felt we needed energy and I didn’t think we were getting energy from everybody in the first half. Khris is a good offensive player. He can make shots and he can also attack off the dribble. It’s just a choice to give him a shot at it.”

Unlike Brandon Knight and Greg Monroe, rookies last year and the year before last, respectively, Middleton has not been starting every game and getting better that way.

“That’s just always being prepared,” Middleton said. “The work I put in, just make sure I’m on top of my game, in great shape to play.”

Friday was only Middleton’s 10th game of the season, all coming off the bench. He’s had to make himself better primarily in practice.

“I’m just staying positive,” Middleton said. “Those guys, the coaches are always helping me out, telling me what I need to do better, what to work on. So I’m just staying patient, just waiting for my turn, just working.”

So for Middleton to come out in the fourth quarter and deliver 10 points, a career-high five rebounds, an assist and a steal was …

“Big time,” Knight said. “Just to be able to have the confidence to play the way he did, not really having a whole lot of experience at this level. During that time, he did a great job and I congratulate him.”

Middleton didn’t seem at all fazed by being put in that situation.

“Not really, because the fourth quarter, that’s when everybody wants to play, that’s winning time,” Middleton said. “I have confidence in myself, my teammates have confidence in me. I just go out there and play my game, don’t worry about other things.”

Monroe has been with Middleton in practice so he wasn’t surprised by what he saw.

“Nah, he’s a knock-down shooter, cerebral player,” Monroe said. “He plays within himself. He has a good feel for the game so he knows when to attack and when to move the ball. I’m not surprised he’s getting a chance and he’s taking advantage of it.”

Before February, Middleton had played in just three games in November for a total of 12 minutes.

Friday night Middleton played minutes that might have ordinarily gone to veteran Rodney Stuckey.

Stuckey has struggled of late, going without a field goal in his last three games.

“That’s a hard one for me to figure out,” Hill said. “He’s trying to attack the basket. He makes an effort at the defensive end of the floor. I think he’s like a lot of guys, probably just going through a little spell right now where you just have to play yourself out of it. But in the second half, I just had to roll the dice and see if somebody could give us a lift.”

The Pistons aren’t making a run at the playoffs so it’s time to go ahead and play Middleton, play him a lot and see how he does.

The Pistons already know what Stuckey can do and what he cannot do. So why not let Middleton make some mistakes and learn on the floor when the games aren’t critical?

Andre Drummond was certainly an exciting rookie who had people buzzing before he got hurt.

Although at 6-foot-7, 215 pounds, Middleton isn’t the same type of player Drummond is, perhaps he can bring some excitement to the rest of the season, the same way he brought the energy Friday night against the Mavericks.