DETROIT – The return of the Pistons to Detroit was celebrated as a restoring of order, the city game coming back to the city. The harsh truth is the Pistons were rarely a good team for their two decades bouncing around various downtown venues, mostly at Cobo Arena, before fleeing to the suburbs – first the Pontiac Silverdome, then The Palace of Auburn Hills, the place where all three NBA titles that dot the franchise’s resume were won.
So coming back to the city is a nice story that won’t have nearly the resonance anticipated unless the Pistons stir Little Caesars Arena the way they shook The Palace during the Bad Boys and Goin’ to Work eras.
Wednesday night was a start – and a pretty darn good one – that carried broad streaks of promise that the good vibes will have some legs.
Tobias Harris scored 17 of his 27 points in the first quarter and consistent scoring from him will be a key to the season. As will Reggie Jackson’s resurgence, Andre Drummond’s emergence as a defensive force, Avery Bradley’s ability to infuse the team with his next-level effort and focus and Stanley Johnson’s coming of age.
A lot of those things were apparent in the 102-90 win over a Charlotte team missing two key pieces – Nic Batum and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – but don’t get caught up in the details as much as the broader picture.
And that’s the depth Stan Van Gundy has built and the camaraderie the Pistons have fostered since gathering in Las Vegas for a players-only week in early August that set a tone of selflessness and winning above everything. That feeling carried them to the doorstep of the 2017-18 season and paid dividends in the first official entry in the Little Caesars record book.
“I think our chemistry is a lot better,” Harris said. “Our body language is better out there. We’re embracing each other more.”
One such embrace – a literal full-on hug – came at center court when the buzzer sounded, Jackson and Drummond holding on for a half-minute or so. Both suffered different types of anguish a year ago, when the Pistons fell off by seven wins after snapping a six-season playoff drought in 2015-16, and both did exhaustive soul searching over the summer.
“Honestly, we were just talking about how we have to go out there and lead each and every night,” Jackson said. “We have to be our best selves. If we want to do something special, we have to do it on a day-to-day basis. Not necessarily just games; we have to continue to get better in practice, then we have to translate it over to games and come out and compete each and every day.”
That’s a level of maturity that ripples through the roster. Drummond kept his head in the game on a night the ball wasn’t finding him much in the post, finishing with four assists and no turnovers. Jackson didn’t have a turnover, either – but eight assists, solid defense on Kemba Walker in the third quarter to protect a foul-plagued Bradley and a tidy 13 points – and neither did Stanley Johnson.
Johnson missed all 13 of his shots – and was flat-out robbed by the basketball gods on a few fourth-quarter attempts that were halfway down – but there he was late, facilitating the play that proved to be the dagger for Charlotte. He hustled down an offensive rebound with 83 seconds to play and the ball found Harris for a triple after the Hornets had cut an 18-point deficit to eight.
“I think our team is maturing,” Jackson said. “We’re getting over the fact that you might not necessarily have the best shooting night, but you’ve just got to find a way to contribute. I loved the way Stanley stayed aggressive. It didn’t take away from his defensive intensity.”
Van Gundy sees it in other ways, too – in Drummond and Jackson both altering their games to provide a more complementary fit for what the team needs.
“We’re really unselfish and we’ve got some guys that have been willing to sacrifice,” he said. “Andre took one shot off the lane – got a little frustrated because he wasn’t getting the ball – but he had seven assists the other night, four tonight. He’s playing out of dribble handoffs, he’s getting guys the ball. Reggie, the thing everybody notices if you’re watching, there’s a lot less pounding the ball. He’s not out there 15, 16 dribbles. He makes his move and he makes the pass, so that’s contagious. It allows other people to play. The fact we’ve had a couple of key guys be willing to change a little bit, I think we’ve become a lot more unselfish.”
Bradley can be a bellwether for this team, a metronome for his even-keeled temperament and his consistency of effort. He arrived an enthusiastic advocate for Van Gundy, hailing his preparation of a team from an opponent’s perspective during his time in Boston, and echoes his coach’s philosophies on defensive mindset and attention to detail. He liked what he saw from guys like Drummond and Johnson even as they didn’t put up scoring numbers.
“That’s accepting a role on this team,” Bradley said. “Andre’s a big part of this team and he’s going to have some nights where he just dominates on the offensive end. That’s what kind of team we need to be. It can be anybody’s night.”
It happened to be Harris’ night in the unveiling of Little Caesars Arena, hitting 11 of 18 shots and grabbing 10 rebounds to boot. He, too, took encouragement from the way the guys who weren’t throwing it through the hoop with nearly his efficiency found ways to contribute to the win and push each other through the game.
And, eventually, to win titles. Wouldn’t that make the Pistons’ return to the heart of Detroit a story worth telling.