HOUSTON – With Aron Baynes about 99 percent certain to be elsewhere as a free agent next season, the Pistons already had Boban Marjanovic penciled into their plans. His showing in Friday’s comeback win over Houston might have convinced them to write his name down in indelible ink.
The 7-foot-4 Serbian scored a career-high 27 points and added 12 rebounds as the Pistons erased a 12-point fourth-quarter deficit and outscored Houston 39-22 to post a 114-109 win.
He scored 17 points in 15 first-half minutes with Andre Drummond in foul trouble and earned the right to finish the game with a unit that consisted of just one starter, Ish Smith. Reggie Bullock and Stan Van Gundy’s two most recent No. 1 draft picks, Stanley Johnson and Henry Ellenson, completed the unit that carried the Pistons down the stretch, outscoring Houston 25-15 over the final seven minutes after Marjanovic and Ellenson entered the game.
“It was great. We had a bunch of guys out there who really wanted to play,” Van Gundy said. “They weren’t bogged down by the way the season had gone. They had great enthusiasm to play. I don’t care when it is in the year or what the situation is, that’s a big part of this is just having a great enthusiasm to play and those guys really did.”
The Pistons kept their ever-so-faint playoff hopes alive due to Miami’s loss at Toronto, but Van Gundy is committed to getting a head start on 2017-18 over the season’s final three games by giving minutes to three players in particular: Marjanovic, Ellenson and Johnson.
Their play Friday earned them those minutes on merit. Ellenson, making his first career start, posted a double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds. Johnson added 13 points, four boards and four assists and it was his triple with 32 seconds to play that gave the Pistons a 110-107 lead, then added a pair of free throws with 15 seconds left to put the Pistons ahead by five.
“I think we just played super hard,” Johnson said. “Got a lot of young guys, me and Henry out there, Boban – who hasn’t had many chances this year to play extended minutes – so we’re really, really hungry. We’re just trying to play hard and show everybody that we can play, as well.”
Ellenson had a welcome-to-the-NBA moment early when Ryan Anderson, one of the league’s top stretch fours, drained three triples in the game’s first four minutes as Houston raced to an early double-digit lead. But he never lost his composure and showed off several flashes of the high-ceiling offensive ability that figure to make him a part of the Pistons puzzle next season.
For all of Ellenson’s offensive skills – the shooting range, the ability to put the ball on the floor, the size to finish at the rim – it was a rebound he speared late that perhaps heartened Van Gundy most.
“That was impressive. That’s something that I’ve talked to him about a lot,” Van Gundy said. “We know he’s a good offensive player, good offensive instincts. We know the defense is going to be a little bit of a challenge at times. He’s got to work hard at it. But he’s got to rebound the ball and tonight he did. Pretty good for your first start against a very, very good team and you come away with a win and a double-double. A really good performance.”
Ellenson’s rebound came after Johnson’s triple when James Harden – typically sensational with 33 points, nine rebounds and 12 assists – fired up a 3-pointer to tie. In a crowd, Ellenson came away with the loose ball.
“The most impressive thing I saw out of him today was the rebound at the end,” Johnson said. “We lost a couple of games this season in that same fashion because guys don’t go back and get rebounds, but he snatched it. He had a look on his face like he was ready to play. I was excited for that.”
“We just made winning plays at the end, what we had to do to get the win,” Ellenson said. “Boban making great moves, getting offensive rebounds, put-backs, big-time rebounds. Stanley at the end – as soon as he had the ball, I had a good feeling about it. Who he is, a confident player, and he let that three fly and we got up three. That was huge. We just made winning plays down the stretch and that was fun.”
Johnson scored 10 fourth-quarter points and Marjanovic nine to go with five rebounds after entering the game with seven minutes left.
“I really was surprised that time. ‘You go on the court.’ Wow, I go on the court?” Marjanovic grinned. “Of course, I’m a professional and everybody here like Henry, Stanley, we put our minutes working on the court and we want to improve ourselves and help our starters. We want to jump in and help them as much as possibly we can.”
The chances all three will get to do it with great frequency next season took a pretty good jump forward with their clutch fourth-quarter Friday to win at Houston.