ORLANDO – If somebody said it before Chuck Daly, it was the guy whose cool hand steered the Bad Boys who immortalized the basketball axiom that “shooting covers a lot of sins.”
It couldn’t quite cover all of them – most especially, a foul call that had the entire Pistons coaching staff up in arms with 10 seconds to play and led to a five-point Oklahoma City play – as the Pistons lost their Summer League opener 92-91 despite leading for 98 percent of the game.
But the ways Henry Ellenson and Luke Kennard found ways to put the ball in the basket was the biggest takeaway from the game for a team that finished 25th in offensive efficiency last season.
Ellenson finished with 21 points and nine rebounds and had a 3-pointer fall off the rim at the buzzer that would’ve won it. Kennard hit 4 of 6 from the 3-point arc and finished with 16 points and three assists.
“And they made some tough shots, too,” said Bob Beyer, Stan Van Gundy’s top assistant coach who again serves as Summer League head coach. “They were switching a lot in the beginning of the game and we got ’em away from that because we were going at the mismatch and we were scoring over the mismatch.”
That might not be a staple of Van Gundy’s offense for the 2017-18 season, but then again … well, it might not be all that far off. The Pistons are at least as curious to see how their two most recent No. 1 picks hold up on the defensive end here as what they don on offense because Van Gundy won’t carve out playing time until they can put up at least modest resistance.
But there’s no question they have offensive gifts unique for their positions. Ellenson’s ability to put the ball on the floor as a power forward and represent a scoring threat from pretty much anywhere and Kennard’s playmaking and ability to score from tough angles give both a chance to crack Van Gundy’s rotation.
Ellenson scored 12 first-quarter points when, as Beyer said, Oklahoma City switched the Kennard-Ellenson side pick and rolls. Kennard was a little indecisive early, but got it rolling after a 1 for 5 start.
“The speed of the game is a step higher,” Kennard said. “Having some veteran guys on the team over there on the bench and then the coaches that have had a lot of experience in the league, they’re always talking to me. It builds confidence in me as a player just to stay comfortable and stay confident. So the adjustment is different, but the people that are surrounded around me, they’re able to make me feel comfortable in that adjustment so it’s been really good.”
“Luke did a really good job today for his first game ever as a pro,” Ellenson said. “It was real good to play with him. He’s really fun to play with. Me and him were able to get into some side pick and rolls, two outs and stuff like that. He was able to come off, hit shots, make plays, find guys and I thought he did a really good job for his first game.”
The Pistons took a quick 6-0 lead that stretched to 14-2 and led by eight to 12 points for the bulk of the game. Oklahoma City opened the third quarter with an 8-0 run to tie at 51, but the Pistons answered back with an 8-0 run and led 74-68 with 7:33 left when Kennard re-entered the game and drained a triple on his first possession to put the Pistons ahead by nine.
Midway through the quarter, Kennard set up Eric Moreland for a dunk with a great drive and dish to give the Pistons an 83-72 lead that appeared safe. But the Pistons surrendered too many Oklahoma City second-chance points (14) and free throws (outshot 33-19 at the line) as the Thunder went on a 12-0 run to take their first lead with 2:37 to play. The Pistons answered with a 7-0 run to lead 90-84, highlighted by Ellenson’s turnaround jumper with the shot clock blaring from just inside the 3-point arc.
The disputed call came with the Pistons ahead 91-87. They were called for impeding Oklahoma City’s movement on a dead ball with the Thunder inbounding from the side. They should have been granted one free throw and the ball, but instead were given two free throws – both made by Daniel Hamilton – followed by Hamilton’s tip-in and subsequent free throw to complete a three-point play and five-point possession.
The Pistons were left with 2.8 seconds left to try to win it and Beyer dialed up a play for Ellenson.
“We worked on that last out-of-bounds play for the game,” Ellenson said. “I had a shot. I had a clear look at the rim. It was right there. I felt good about it. I wish I could try to shoot that again. It does sting a little bit, even though it’s a Summer League game. You’re competitive; you want to win. We’ve got to go get that first one tomorrow.”
For Ellenson and Kennard, there figure to be lots of tomorrows for players with their gifts for making shots to atone for sins committed elsewhere.