MILWAUKEE – There’s a laundry list of things that Stan Van Gundy didn’t have the opportunity to vet in an abbreviated preseason further complicated by minor injuries to four key players that prevented him from ever playing his expected starting five together.
But two forces that figure to be bedrocks of the Pistons season were on full display in the finale at Milwaukee, a 107-103 loss: Andre Drummond and Avery Bradley.
Drummond and Bradley, playing only their second game together, played like All-Stars. Bradley, returning after two games missed with a sprained ankle, scored 26 points in 30 minutes and hit 11 of 17 shots. Drummond, who missed two games with conjunctivitis, had 18 points, 22 boards and a team-best seven assists – two of them to Bradley on back cuts.
“Did a great job cutting,” said Reggie Jackson, who played with his new backcourt partner for the first time after missing the first two preseason games with a groin strain. “He really led us on offense today. He was getting to his mid-range, was cutting, then defensively he always does what he does. He had great pressure on the ball. Avery, obviously, looks like a great acquisition. He’s been outstanding for us.”
Van Gundy wants Drummond to become more of a hub for the offense this season, cutting down on extended jump hooks in favor of dribble handoffs and hard rolls to the rim. The Pistons got a taste of what that might look like in Milwaukee.
“Andre’s a very good passer,” Bradley said. “He sees the floor very well as a big and not only myself, but Stanley (Johnson, who sat out with a minor bout of back tightness), Reggie Bullock, even Tobias (Harris), I feel like a lot of people can have opportunities playing with him because he will give you the ball. If you might the right cut, he’ll make the right play.”
Van Gundy liked everything he saw from Bradley and Drummond; alas, that was about the start and end of his list.
“We really only had two guys play well,” he said. “Avery and Andre played well and that was about it. We need more than that.”
The Bucks – with extraordinary length in their starting lineup from Thon Maker to Giannis Antetokounmpo to Tony Snell to Khris Middleton – trap the ball as aggressively as any team. That got the ball out of Jackson’s hands and the Pistons simply did a less than stellar job attacking the pressure.
“They’re tough to score on. I thought we were tough to score on early, too, but when we move the ball we did some good things,” Van Gundy said. “When you try to play on the strong side of the floor against them and you try to play one-option basketball, you’re going to struggle and we had too many possessions of that.”
The offense perked up when Ish Smith entered and Van Gundy matched up with Milwaukee by employing a three-guard offense with Smith, Langston Galloway, Bradley and then Luke Kennard. But, as Van Gundy noted, the uptick in offense also coincided with Antetokounmpo resting and taking his chaos-inducing defense with him.
“That helps,” he said. “He took away two fast-break layups (with chase-down blocks) that are normally scores. Look, I’m not taking anything away from Ish. He picks up the speed, but I really think Antetokounmpo out of the game gives you a little better chance. He’s really tough defensively. He’s a good player offensively, too, but defensively he’s so impactful.”
Bradley is the Pistons counterpart as defensive stopper, but the Bucks hurt the Pistons most from the 3-point arc, finishing 16 of 33 and building a 13-point lead – that would become 18 – after three quarters with a 35-point third-quarter barrage. The Bucks were 15 of 28 from the arc through three quarters, but the Pistons rallied to tie late and had a chance to take the lead but Henry Ellenson missed a free throw with 41 seconds left and – after two Milwaukee free throws – also missed a runner with 15 seconds to play.
“The 3-point line just killed us,” Van Gundy said. “We’re struggling, number one, to get back and get matched up. And the ball’s just breaking us down on the dribble all the time and then they’re throwing the ball out and shooting threes. We’ve been outscored from the 3-point arc a lot in preseason and that’s been a real problem.”
The Pistons will take Saturday off after a week that included three games and four long practices, then have three days of practice before opening the regular season – and formally christening Little Caesars Arena – by hosting Charlotte on Wednesday. Ready or not, here it comes.
“Preseason’s over, so doesn’t really matter if we’re ready or not,” Jackson said. “We have to be come Wednesday. Games really start counting. It’s the first of 82.”