A 1-2 punch at center – Drummond, Moreland – as Pistons roar back from wobbly start to beat Bucks

It took Andre Drummond 36 attempts to establish his previous career high in free throws made – 13 – in a January 2016 night at Houston that left even Rockets players muttering about the strategy employed by then-coach J.B. Bickerstaff. It took him 16 attempts to break his record in Friday’s comeback win over Milwaukee.

“I put in a lot of work, messed around with different forms throughout my career, tried different things to get myself comfortable,” Drummond said after the 105-96 win over the Bucks. “It all came back to going back to the basics. I went back to the first one in high school, what I did to get myself comfortable at the line.”

“Their strategy was to hammer him down low and I don’t think that strategy is going to work this year,” Stan Van Gundy said. “A night like tonight, that’s not a fluke. If you’re a 35 percent shooter in your career and you go 8 for 16, maybe you had a good night. But 14 for 16? And you saw ’em. They all looked good. It wasn’t like he was banking ’em in. We’ve seen it for a solid five or six weeks. I’m not surprised by it tonight.”

It started as anything but a night to remember for Drummond. He picked up a foul one second into the game, inexplicably grabbing Bucks center John Henson before anyone could win the opening tip. Five minutes later, he had to sit after picking up a second foul, almost equally silly, 40 feet from the basket.

There was a time – like, last season – when such a listless start would have hung over him all night. This time, he dominated the second half, taking and making all of his free throws. He made 5 of 7 shots and took nothing outside arm’s length of the rim, grabbed 15 rebounds – a dozen after halftime – blocked two shots and recorded one steal.

“I think his maturity has been his biggest improvement,” Van Gundy said. “We see the free-throw shooting, but the maturity has been really great. He’s much more focused, much more level headed. He will – like any player – in the heat of the battle, he’ll lose it. But he comes back quickly now. You can just talk to him and get his head back in the game. He’s not checking out. He’s focused on what he has to do.”

If Drummond carried the Pistons home, his understudy – Eric Moreland, playing because Jon Leuer was out with an ankle sprain – helped get the Pistons turned around. In 15 first-half minutes, Moreland hit all three of his shot attempts – including a left-handed stab hook from the baseline – grabbed six rebounds and blocked a shot. He was plus-15, helping the Pistons erase an early nine-point deficit after the Bucks opened 9 of 11.

“Fantastic,” Van Gundy said of Moreland. “I thought Eric was super tonight when we had to go the bench early. We had gotten off to a bad start defensively and I thought our bench really picked us up in that first quarter and he was a big part of that.”

After serving as Drummond’s backup in the first two games, Moreland had played about five minutes spread over garbage time of three games in the last six. He’d yet to take a shot this season.

“It feels good to have a decent game tonight and hopefully build some trust with Coach for the future,” Moreland said. “I’ll be ready any time he calls my name to try to bring the same energy.”

“That’s what he does,” said another member of the bench unit that yanked momentum away from the Bucks, Anthony Tolliver. “He’s been doing it since September. He’s another spark-plug guy, energy guy, offensive rebounds, all over the floor. He did his job – played really good defense and was great on the boards.”

Tolliver did his job, as well, including spot minutes against Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo, leading the league with a 31.3 scoring average coming in. Stanley Johnson spent the bulk of his 38 minutes on Antetokounmpo, who required 27 shots to get to 29 points, and kept him away from the rim most of the night.

“Right now, he’s as tough as it gets,” Johnson said. “Good game for him. I don’t think I did a good job on him – I think we won the game, though. He’s a tough guy, especially inside for me. I gave up a lot of height to him. A.T.’s a little different – he gives up a little speed. But I think we just made everything tough for him at the rim. That’s the biggest thing. You can’t be soft at the rim.”

The Pistons surely were not in boosting their record to 6-3 and erasing the disappointment of their loss to the Lakers to wrap up a road trip that began with stirring wins over the Clippers and Warriors. And nobody was less soft than Andre Drummond, who recovered from a dreadful start that might have rendered him mute in his recent past. The ability to shoot free throws, it seems, has manifested by spilling over into all parts of his game.

“It changes the entire dynamic of our team,” Tolliver said of Drummond’s surging confidence. “He has so much more confidence, just being aggressive. Teams can’t just ful him and put him on the line now, which takes a whole different approach. They have to guard him. It just changes everything. As long as he continues that way, we’re going to be tough to beat.”

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