DETROIT – And that’s how Stan Van Gundy – after remaking the roster over the off-season and redrawing his playbook to play to the strengths of a new cast – imagined the Pistons would roll.
Well, except for the first three minutes.
After all the angst about slow starts leading to 21-point deficits in each of the past two first halves, the Pistons came out and … promptly fell behind 9-0 to Minnesota.
“I don’t want to talk about that,” Van Gundy said after the 122-101 win over the Timberwolves that saw the Pistons outscore them 63-35 over the first half’s final 21 minutes. “We played 45 minutes of really good – most complete game we’ve played all year. I’m not going to talk about the first three minutes.”
Lopsided wins usually produce a smorgasbord of happy stats, but the one that popped from the final box score was this one: fast-break points – Pistons 24, Timberwolves 0.
What does that tell you?
“That we were out running and that our defense was fueling that,” said Tobias Harris, who tied a career high with 34 points and is now averaging 23.6 over five games. “We were able to get stops and get out and get some easy buckets, high-percentage shots, dunks. And then we were able to go from there.”
And go and go and go.
“It is rare to have that disparity (in fast-break points) and we’re not usually scoring a lot of fast-break points,” Van Gundy said, “though we are running more. I think we’re hopefully becoming a decent defensive team and with Andre (Drummond) we’re a great rebounding team. We’ve got to take advantage of that and get out and run. I thought our guys ran harder tonight and our point guards got the ball ahead to them.”
Ish Smith led a season-best 32 assist-night with 13 with nine players picking up at least one and Drummond and Reggie Jackson adding four each. The Pistons also wound up with a 47-37 rebound cushion led by Drummond’s 15 boards, pushing him past 5,000 for his career and on pace to become the franchise’s all-time leader by the time the 2020-21 season ends.
“At the defensive end we made it tough for them,” Drummond said. “We definitely were in all the right spots, we got out in transition, we made all the right plays. It was just an all-around good game for us.”
Van Gundy has been encouraging all of his wing players to run the floor in a higher gear and was especially goosing Stanley Johnson to do so. Johnson had played well, if not shot well, in the team’s first three games before a miserable night in Monday’s loss, but he was at his best against Minnesota. A backcourt steal gave him a layup – his first Little Caesars Arena basket after 15 misses – and jump started a 15-point night that included sticky defense, first on Shabazz Muhammad and later on Andrew Wiggins.
“I played my role,” Johnson said. “Brought energy to the game, got a quick early steal, got two early layups all by running the floor. If you listen to the coach, maybe you play well on offense.”
Nobody was better on offense than Harris, who hit 6 of 9 from the 3-point line and 14 of 24 overall despite starting 1 of 6. A year ago, he admits a start like that likely would have had him putting his head down and plowing into traffic to try to score at the rim or draw a foul.
“Definitely would have a little bit different mindset of trying to drive and get some easy ones,” Harris said. “But when (Van Gundy) took me out, I just evaluated some of my shots I took and a lot of them were rushed a little bit, off balance, and was able to settle down and take what the game gave me a little bit better. Just lock in to the looks I was going to get and then I was able to feed off of that, really.”
Drummond grinned and put it a little differently.
“Shooting the damn three ball like he’s supposed to instead of putting the ball on the floor when he’s open,” he said. “I’m really happy about that. He’s shooting the wide-open three. It’s good to see him playing so well.”
The Pistons shot 52 percent, 44 percent from the 3-point line and put six in double figures with Henry Ellenson scoring 14 off the bench and all but getting Van Gundy’s endorsement for a more or less permanent spot in the rotation afterward.
Players moved, the ball moved and the ball found the open guy, early – well, after the first three minutes, at least – and often.
“Thirty-two assists and everybody got involved in moving the ball,” Van Gundy said. “It was really good. Really sharp. Tonight’s sort of what we want it to look like. It always looks better when the ball’s going in the basket. But we need to play that way and for some of our guys this is really different. We’re trying to play with a lot more movement.”
Less is being put on the point guards and everybody has to fit new roles and unlearn old habits. It won’t always look as free flowing and pretty as it looked for the final 45 minutes of their romp over Minnesota. But that was a pretty good sign for what the future might look like. There could be some raucous nights at Little Caesars Arena around the corner.