ORLANDO – It was a fitting way to end the season, if not the end the Pistons would have scripted.
“That was our season, wasn’t it?” Stan Van Gundy said after the Pistons wrapped up a 37-45 campaign with a 113-109 loss to Orlando. “Always down early. Our starters never – or very rarely – get us off to a good start, so down early. Come back, which we do most of the time. And bad shooting team.”
Yup. That about sums it up. The Pistons were porous defensively in a first quarter that saw Orlando score 30 – 12 in the paint, 18 from the 3-point arc – of its 38 points from the areas of analytic efficiency that have haunted the Pistons offensively all season.
After trailing by 21 points after one quarter – and by 18 midway through the third quarter – the Pistons pulled within 10 after three quarters and took the lead in the fourth quarter, up 94-90 with 7:28 to go.
Then came another head-scratching stretch of misses – free throws and laughably wide-open jump shots – that doomed them yet again.
“So you pretty much in one game saw us for what we were this year,” Van Gundy said. “We had some resilience to come back and we can’t shoot. That’s got to change. Tobias (Harris) goes 0 for 4 at the line. Henry (Ellenson) goes 1 for 5 at the line. We had that one stretch about the three- to four-minute mark where we had seven good shots. (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) has a wide-open shot in the corner; hits the side of the board.
“If it wasn’t my team, it would be almost comical.”
Van Gundy spoke at length after the morning shootaround of the off-season of self-assessment ahead and of the need for the many young players on the team – most of whom did not take the expected step forward necessary to improve upon last season’s 44-win output and playoff berth – to come back improved players.
No one will be more critical in that regard than Reggie Jackson, who missed the season’s first 21 and last nine games and was never himself in the interceding 52.
“This season didn’t go the way we wanted it to, but I look forward to myself getting rested and well and the rest of the guys taking care of their games and bruises,” Jackson said. “Most importantly, just all of us letting go, releasing, and when the time comes getting back in the gym, going out to improve on our weaknesses but max your strengths and come back geared up for a full training camp and ready to hit the ground next year.”
It remains to be seen who’ll line up alongside Jackson, about whom Van Gundy expressed complete confidence that he would be back as good or better than the player who drove the Pistons to their 44-win season a year ago.
But two players who made a case for playing time over the final four games, Boban Marjanovic and Henry Ellenson, closed with encouraging performances. Marjanovic finished with 14 points, 11 rebounds and three blocked shots in 21 minutes, including eight points and six boards in nine fourth-quarter minutes.
Ellenson added 12 points and six rebounds in his 19 minutes off the bench and Van Gundy let them finish the game.
“I thought it was a good job just fighting back, especially this being our last game,” Ellenson said. “We could’ve just said, whatever. But it showed the character of our team to keep fighting, keep going, and we were able to make plays down the stretch to get the lead for a little bit. At the end, they hit a couple more shots. It was a good job being able to get back in it because we easily could’ve given up on it.”
Marcus Morris was the starter Van Gundy held out to get Ellenson his minutes. Smith and Caldwell-Pope scored 20 points each with Smith adding 10 assists. He was forced to take on broader responsibilities with Jackson’s injury and struggles to get back to par, but Smith figures to be one player Van Gundy doesn’t spend much time worrying about over the off-season. He filled his role admirably and was cited by Van Gundy as one of the players he could count on to play with a consistently high energy level every night.
And Smith found himself in agreement with his coach on assessing the season.
“We did a lot of teasing this year,” he said. “It was glimpses where people get super excited and then the consistency is the key. If we can be consistent every night and bringing that effort every single night, we’re a 50-win team.”
But they weren’t, falling 13 wins shy of a benchmark that seemed entirely within their reach when the season began. It will lead to a summer of relentless analysis and soul searching.
“Only one team’s going to win it all this year and that’s the ultimate goal,” Smith said. “That’s the goal Coach had in Orlando here when they were in the Eastern Conference finals and the Finals and that’s what he’s trying to get back to in Detroit. You guys are used to winning and we’ve got to get it back to that.”