LOS ANGELES – Just call Anthony Tolliver Mr. Saturday Night Special.
“I don’t know what I am,” Tolliver grinned after playing a critical role in a remarkable Pistons comeback for the second straight Saturday to nab another road win. “I’m just a guy who tried to go in and help the team win, however I can. Tonight I didn’t make very many shots from the 3-point line, but I played tough defense and I made some plays over there and go the team going on that end of the floor.”
A week ago it was Tolliver to the rescue after the Pistons fell behind by 21 points at New York with the Pistons groping for an answer against Kristaps Porzingis. This time it was Blake Griffin and a much more imposing team. The Clippers came into the game as the NBA’s last unbeaten and held a 19.3 average margin of victory over their four wins.
The Pistons held the Clippers 24 points under their average of 111 points in the 95-87 win with the bulk of their defensive muscle being flexed in the second half. Los Angeles was held to 32 second-half points on 27 percent shooting with 10 turnovers.
“We needed this win,” Andre Drummond said. “This is definitely a huge game for us. The way we played, the way we came out with intensity, effort, energy on both ends of the floor to make them uncomfortable in the second half really speaks to what our team really is. We’re a defensive team first and it really showed tonight.”
The problem in the first half was that the Pistons couldn’t defend without fouling. It was an issue through the first five games – opponents shot an average of 11.4 more free throws a game – and the Clippers were 16 of 22 at the line through two quarters. That’s how they ended, too, as the Pistons committed just five second-half fouls.
Tolliver played a big role in that, starting the third quarter on Blake Griffin after he’d terrorized the rest of Stan Van Gundy’s deep roster of power forwards in the first half. Tobias Harris, Jon Leuer and Henry Ellenson all picked up three first-half fouls. Tolliver, Griffin’s primary defender in the second half, wound up playing nearly 26 minutes and finished with eight points, four boards and three fouls. Griffin scored 14 of his 19 points in the first half, when he hit 7 of 10 free throws.
“I just tried to make him work,” Tolliver said. “That’s what it really comes down to for everybody. He’s a great player. He’s going to be, probably, first team All-NBA this year. He’s playing at that level right now. I’ve played against him many times. Kind of know his habits. I know I don’t know how to stop him, but I know how to make it hard on him and just don’t foul him, don’t give him anything easy. He got a couple of buckets on me that I kind of hit myself over, but at the end of the day it was enough to get the win and that’s all that matters.”
The Pistons fell down by 10 at halftime when the Clippers outscored them 6-0 in the final minute, but they quickly cut the deficit to one point in the third quarter. But the Clippers went on a 12-0 run on the strength of four 3-point baskets to take a 70-57 lead with five minutes left in the third quarter.
The Pistons outscored the Clippers 38-17 over the final 17 minutes. They caught them when Stanley Johnson knocked down a transition triple with 8:39 to go and never gave up the lead. Langston Galloway played a big role, scoring 11 points and hitting 3 of 5 triples in the first eight minutes of the quarter.
“I think our defensive effort is really what brought us back,” Drummond said, “and then Langston hitting those open shots, doing what he’s supposed to do, was huge for us, as well. We just played great as a collective group.”
It was a game where Van Gundy had to be light on his feet, too, shuffling the rotation in several instances. The foul trouble at power forward was part of it. He thought Reggie Jackson looked tired midway through the third quarter, so Ish Smith came on to finish the quarter. Van Gundy expected to have to go back to Smith at some point in the fourth, but Jackson went the distance and closed strong with six points and four assists over the final 12 minutes.
And, notably, Harris – brilliant in averaging nearly 24 points through the first five games – played just two seconds of the fourth quarter as the Pistons got the lead with Tolliver and Johnson providing terrific defense against the high-scoring Los Angeles forward duo of Griffin and Danilo Gallinari, who combined to shoot 9 of 34.
“We went down the stretch without our leading scorer,” Van Gundy said. “The unit that was in there was playing well and I loved Tobias’ attitude on the bench. It was great. It was all about getting the win. That group was playing well. Stanley was playing great defense. We didn’t go back to Tobias. It’s all about trying to win games and trying to use everybody we have to do that. Obviously, Langston gave us a big lift. And, obviously, A.T. gave us a big lift.”
Mr. Saturday Night Special helped make this Saturday night particularly special.