NEW YORK – Stan Van Gundy said the Pistons would use every player on the roster over the course of the season. It took three games to prove him right. The last of them was Anthony Tolliver. It doesn’t figure to take as long to see his turn come around again.
If this were baseball and one pitcher were to have the win assigned to his record, Saturday’s 25-point turnaround victory at New York would be handed to Tolliver out of the bullpen because the starter didn’t complete the requisite five innings.
The Pistons were down 21 with 3:41 left before halftime when Van Gundy said to assistant coaches Bob Beyer and Tim Hardaway, “Shouldn’t we get A.T. in so we can get moving around a little bit?”
The Pistons got moving, all right. They’d shaved five points off the lead by the time Tolliver entered the game for Jon Leuer at 2:53, but two Knicks foul shots pushed the deficit back to 18. By halftime, with Tolliver contributing a 3-pointer and two boards, the deficit was down to a more manageable 13.
Tolliver had been Van Gundy’s fourth power forward of the night: starter Tobias Harris, then Jon Leuer, then Henry Ellenson. At halftime, Van Gundy decided to give the Knicks a different look and start Tolliver on 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis, who’d scored 23 first-half points on 8 of 10 shooting.
He finished with 33 but made only 3 of 10 shots after halftime with Tolliver hounding his every step.
“I just tried to keep the ball out of his hands as much as possible and be smart on defense and make sure that we had the right reads,” Tolliver said. “When we’re supposed to switch, I tried to be very communicative and make sure guys got to his body quickly because if he catches it without anybody there, it’s pretty much impossible to do anything about it. But if you’re there on the catch, you can make it a little more difficult.”
The Pistons opened the second half on a 9-0 run with Tolliver contributing another 3-pointer to quickly pull within four. The Knicks pushed it back to 11 briefly, but the Pistons closed the quarter strong to get within a point headed to the fourth. Tolliver scored six points with two boards and two pretty assists to produce layups for Harris and Leuer in the quarter. He played 17 second-half minutes and finished with nine points, four boards and two assists while playing the lead role in muffling Porzingis.
All that for a guy who was inactive for the season opener and in uniform but not used in Friday’s loss at Washington.
“Stays ready,” Reggie Jackson said of Tolliver. “He’s the ultimate professional. We know it was probably upsetting for him to not suit up the first night, especially opening in Detroit, a historical night. Second night, number wasn’t called. And then tonight to come up big. He never seems to let it wear on him. He just comes out and he’s always ready when his name’s called. He was the MVP for us tonight.”
The plus-minus numbers backed that up. With Tolliver on the floor for his 20 minutes, the Pistons were 21 points better than the Knicks. In the other 28 minutes, the Pistons were outscored by 17.
“A.T. gave us a huge lift,” Van Gundy said. “I said to the team afterwards, that’s one of the things we’ve talked about is we’re going to use everybody in that locker room as the season goes on. Here he was inactive the first game, didn’t play last night, gets his first opportunity and is a huge contributor. That’s just a great, professional effort and that’s why you put somebody like Anthony Tolliver on your roster.”
Reggie Bullock, with two more games to go to complete his five-game suspension, is the only one of the 14 Pistons with full-time roster spots – Dwight Buycks and Luis Montero are on the newly created two-way contracts – who hasn’t played meaningful minutes already. Boban Marjanovic beat Tolliver to join the club with four-plus minutes in the first half, but the Knicks pushed their lead from nine to 14 in that time to start the second quarter. Marjanovic and Ellenson didn’t play in the second half.
Tolliver, Van Gundy knew, was upset at being inactive for the opener. But he also knew Tolliver would process his disappointment the right way and not allow it to become a distraction.
“That’s part of being a professional,” Tolliver said. “You just have to roll with the punches. Whenever you get an opportunity, you take advantage of it and that’s what I tried to do tonight.”
The idea of that attitude emanating from a single player, infusing a young locker room, is part of what motivated Van Gundy to add Tolliver to complete his roster last July. Well, that and his 3-point shot and assignment-sure defense. Those things don’t go unnoticed by Tolliver’s teammates, either.
“It’s a testament to why he’s been in the league so long,” Harris said. “His professionalism and his ability to always stay ready, just like tonight. It’s no surprise that he had the game that he had. A.T. – you ask anybody in this locker room – his identity is professionalism.”