NOAH TRISTER,AP Sports Writer
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) — Dwight Howard caught the ball next to the basket and looked as if he was going up for another dunk — then Detroit’s Jason Maxiell came up from behind and smacked the ball away from the Orlando star.
The Pistons are still a work in progress, but new coach Lawrence Frank liked what he saw from his team on defense in an 89-78 win over the Magic on Monday night.
“It’s another step in a season where we’re going to have to continue to take many, many steps to get to where we want to go,” Frank said. “For tonight, it’s definitely a step in a positive direction.”
Ben Gordon scored 26 points, and the Pistons overcame some early foul trouble. Rodney Stuckey and Tayshaun Prince scored 14 points apiece for Detroit, which has won two in a row after losing its first three games of the season.
Howard had 19 points, seven rebounds and five steals before fouling out with 2:46 remaining on an illegal screen.
Orlando (4-2) was playing a night after rallying to beat Toronto, but the Magic were outplayed by Detroit in the second half.
“We can’t make any excuses,” Howard said. “They played harder than we did, and that’s why we lost.”
Orlando shot 44 percent from the field and 8 of 22 from 3-point range. Hedo Turkoglu and Ryan Anderson each scored 13 points for the Magic.
Frank is in his first season as Detroit’s coach, and the Pistons have held the opposition to 88 points or fewer in three of their first five games. Orlando’s previous season low in scoring was 89 points in its opener against Oklahoma City.
Howard threw down a powerful early dunk and went on to score 12 points in the first half. Meanwhile, Detroit’s big men struggled to remain on the court with him. Greg Monroe picked up his second foul just 4:55 into the first quarter. Maxiell replaced him and picked up two in 83 seconds.
Maxiell had four fouls by the end of the first half, but Gordon scored 17 points in the first two quarters to keep it close. Orlando led 46-44 at halftime.
By midway through the third, Monroe’s foul count was up to four, but Maxiell was ready to step in. His big block on Howard was a highlight.
“I was trying to foul him, really. It worked out in my favor,” Maxiell said. “I think it was all ball.”
Gordon gave the Pistons a 66-60 lead late in the quarter when his forced 3-pointer at the end of the shot clock went in.
Early in the fourth, Detroit rookie Brandon Knight missed from outside but was able to grab an offensive rebound and lay the ball in after Ben Wallace kept it alive. The Pistons led 72-65 at that point, and Orlando called a timeout to regroup.
“I think what changed the game was Jason Maxiell and Ben Wallace,” Frank said. “They brought a ruggedness to us, a toughness, a physical inside presence.”
Wallace played 20:18 and didn’t attempt a shot, but he had five rebounds and five steals.
Chris Duhon made a 3-pointer for Orlando to make it 72-68, but the Magic could pull no closer than four points late in the game. They trailed 85-78 when Jameer Nelson missed from outside with about a minute remaining, and the Pistons had no trouble closing the game out from there.
“We didn’t play any defense and we didn’t rebound. I think we ran out of gas offensively, but we never made any commitment to defense,” Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said. “I’m amazed we were even in shouting distance down the stretch.”
Monroe capped Detroit’s victory with a breakaway dunk with 29 seconds to play.
Notes: The Pistons outrebounded Orlando 39-28. … Monroe had 10 points and nine rebounds in 22:35. Maxiell had nine points in 16:02. … Orlando hosts Washington on Wednesday night. That same evening, Detroit hosts Chicago in former Piston Richard Hamilton’s scheduled return to Auburn Hills as a member of the Bulls. Hamilton was a late scratch in Chicago’s game Monday because of a groin injury.
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