Coach on Johnson: a 'learning experience for a 19-year-old kid'
POSTED: Apr 21, 2016 9:21 PM ET
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Will the Pistons off-court trash talk come back to bite them?
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — As much to shut a few yaps as to give his players' legs and lungs a breather, Detroit coach Stan Van Gundy limited Thursday's activities to film review and treatment for the ones who needed it.
He also had a chat with rookie forward Stanley Johnson. Johnson's comments about LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers after the Pistons' Game 2 loss doubled-down on brash words he had said leading up to the game and, chances are, won't be helpful in helping Detroit dig out of its 0-2 hole in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference first-round series.
"I had a talk with Stan today," Van Gundy told reporters at the team's practice facility adjacent to The Palace. "So I'll leave it at that. I told him what I thought about his comments and everything. So that's a discussion that we had today."
After essentially framing his expected minutes matched up against James as a personal clash -- "It's on," the rookie had said -- Johnson followed up some on-court schooling from the Cavaliers MVP by boasting "I'm definitely in his head. That's for sure."
He criticized both James and some deep reserves for Cleveland, too, for the alleged trash they talk.
"He jabbers," Johnson said in the visitors' dressing room after Detroit's 107-90 loss at Quicken Loans Arena. "He moves his mouth sometimes. Their whole team does, kind of like their little cheerleaders on the bench. Every time you walk in the right corner. They're always saying something like they're playing basketball, like they're actually in the game. There's only seven or eight players who play, I don't see why the other players are talking. They might as well just be in the stands, in my opinion."
Well look, you do [cringe at Johnson's comments] a little bit. But you have to realize he's a 19-year-old kid going through this for the first time. You get him right after a game like that, he's frustrated."
– Stan Van Gundy on rookie Stanley Johnson about his comments on LeBron James
Whoa, whoa, Van Gundy seemed to say in huddling up with Johnson. No need to antagonize James or the defending East champs any more than he already had. Forward Marcus Morris also has exchanged a few glares and words with James.
The coach didn't share content of his talk with Johnson, the No. 8 pick overall in last June's draft and still a teenager until May 29. But he did describe the tone.
"Well look, you do [cringe at Johnson's comments] a little bit," Van Gundy said. "But you have to realize he's a 19-year-old kid going through this for the first time. You get him right after a game like that, he's frustrated ....
"We met, we talked. He knows how I feel, what my concerns are. But it wasn't an anger session. It wasn't a 'You're an [expletive]' type of thing. It wasn't. It's just another learning experience for a 19-year-old kid."
That, of course, is part of the Pistons' predicament right now. They all are relative kids in the postseason.
Five of Detroit's top six players by minutes played are making their playoff debuts this spring. Eight Pistons have played four NBA seasons or fewer, eight of them made their playoff debuts in this series. As this postseason began, Detroit's crew had a total of 204 games of playoff experience, third-fewest among the 16 qualifiers; only Boston (134) and Portland (105) ranked as greater newbies.
Cleveland, by comparison, entered with 724 games of experience, second only to San Antonio's Jurassic 1,210. James himself played in his 180th playoff game Wednesday, matching Michael Jordan's career total. The four-time MVP and two-time champion is 15-0 in series in which his teams take 2-0 leads. Four of the Pistons starters might require another year or two just to reach 15 playoff games.
The act of poking at an opponent's most dangerous player raises questions about Detroit's roster, specifically its shortage of reliable veterans to serve as "old heads" to use NBA parlance. What Johnson said wasn't just ill-advised, it was unadvised, considering how few voices of reason are present in the mostly young locker room.
Does Van Gundy wish he had a few more vets to catch guys before they pop off?
"Nah," the coach said. "They probably would have told him the same thing I did."
Said Detroit center Andre Drummond, 22: "We talk to guys like Joel [Anthony], Aron Baynes. Even Reggie [Jackson] has a little experience in the playoffs as well. And we kind of pick their brains a little and ask them questions all night.
"When we lost our first game, I went right to Joel and asked him how it felt when he lost a game in the playoffs. He gave me pointers about keeping my head, keeping my focus, and there's a lot of basketball to be played and, y'know, we can't win 'em all."
Contrast Detroit's approach, though, to the way the late Flip Saunders seeded Minnesota's roster to start the season with oldsters Andre Miller, Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince as mentors for the likes of Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Zach LaVine. The Timberwolves haven't been put to the playoff test yet but they had personnel in place capable of telling a guy like Johnson to zip it for both his and his teammates' sake. Or helping Tobias Harris cope with his struggles against Cleveland's Kevin Love at one end and James at the other.
"Well look, to me, we've got great veteran guys," Van Gundy said. "But the guys we're playing on the floor the majority of the minutes are young guys. You can't make up for that with just the guys on the bench talking. That doesn't do it."
There is truth in that. The three Pistons 30 or older -- Anthony Tolliver (30), Steve Blake (36) and Anthony (33) -- ranked seventh, ninth and 15th, respectively, in minutes played for Detroit this season. Players who don't make significant contributions often feel their voices are muted as well.
"So a lot of it, [the young player are] going to have to learn themselves," Van Gundy said. "There are guys helping them along. I mean, Steve and Joel and A.T. and Baynes, those guys will help 'em along. But the guys playing the majority of the minutes don't have a lot of experience and a lot of this, you've got to learn on your own."
Or via a friendly, Stan-to-Stan chat.
"I'm not fining him or doing anything like that," Van Gundy said of Johnson. "They're grown men and they talk to the media and the whole thing. But I wanted to let him know what my concerns were. So we talked about it. I thought it was good and I thought he understood and received it well."
Any fear that James -- also cranky Wednesday after taking an elbow into the ribs that wasn't called a foul -- or the Cavs subs will use it to fan their flames for Games 3 and 4 this weekend at The Palace? Van Gundy shook that one off.
"Look, y'know, LeBron understands that it's about the game," the coach said. "I don't think a guy like him needs much more motivation. They're talking about trying to win a championship. That's a lot more motivating than something a rookie might have said."
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