Boston’s bench, 3-point firepower overwhelm Pistons in return from All-Star break
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DETROIT – Ish Smith gave the Pistons everything they could have asked from him, essentially playing All-Star Kyrie Irving to a standoff. The Pistons can’t wait to get him back to the second unit. Alas, they must.
The Pistons bench was outscored by Boston’s 65-21 in their 110-98 loss coming out of the All-Star break and those two sets of numbers speak to the quandary Stan Van Gundy faces.
A healthy Jackson not only gives the Pistons a dynamic pick-and-roll playmaker with the first unit, it pushes Smith to the bench. That bench was as big a reason as any that the Pistons were 19-14 and sitting in the No. 4 seed when Jackson went down with an injury on Dec. 26.
They went 4-12 without Jackson until Blake Griffin arrived. They pushed themselves back into the playoff picture by going 5-3 with Griffin in the lineup leading to the All-Star break, but they’re hanging by their fingernails. Friday’s loss leaves them at two games under .500 with 24 to play – and 15 of those will come on the road.
Jackson is inching toward a return, but it’s likely at least a few weeks away. In the meantime, Smith either remains the starter or gives Van Gundy a different problem – who starts at point guard? – if he’s reunited with the bench unit he led so successfully over the first 33 games. With Smith at the wheel, that second unit prospered in transition.
Jameer Nelson remains a steady hand, but his days of pushing the pace are well behind him. What is the identity of a Pistons second unit that includes Nelson, Anthony Tolliver, Luke Kennard and James Ennis?
“Right now, none,” Van Gundy glumly admitted after Friday’s setback.
The Pistons led 28-23 after a crisply played first quarter, but the offense ground to a halt to start the second quarter as their lead disappeared for good. They scored all of four points in nearly the first five minutes of the period and were outscored 38-21 in the second.
“I thought first quarter we did a great job of playing with energy,” said Blake Griffin, who struggled through a 5 of 19 shooting night, finishing with 17 points. “I thought we were fresh. Then second through fourth, I thought we just had no energy, had no drive. I thought we were trying, but it just kind of looked like everybody was moving in slow motion a little bit.”
All those missed shots from Van Gundy’s second unit loosened up Boston’s transition offense and put the Pistons in some mismatches that resulted in plenty of wide-open shots. The Celtics responded by drilling 11 of 21 triples on their way to 17 3-pointers for the game, tying a season high by a Pistons opponent.
“I thought there were three things in the game,” Van Gundy said. “Our bench was not good; the second quarter was really where the game was decided – everything else was competitive; and obviously their threes – and our threes.”
The Celtics got triples from seven different players in the first half alone, including a pair apiece from Marcus Smart – a 28 percent 3-point shooter against the rest of the NBA but a killer against the Pistons – and Daniel Thies, an undrafted rookie from Germany who soared past his previous career high (12 points) to finish with 19 points and seven rebounds.
The Pistons, meanwhile, hit 4 of 6 triples to start the game but then required 27 more attempts to hit another half-dozen.
“They shot six more than us and made seven more than us,” Van Gundy said, wincing. “I thought we had some really good looks at threes and didn’t knock anything in.”
The Celtics turned a one-point lead into a 12-point lead over the final four-plus minutes of the second quarter, but the Pistons starters again played well to start the second half and had the deficit at four late in the third quarter. Van Gundy’s bench again struggled, though, and a 7-0 Boston run to start the fourth quarter made it a 16-point game and essentially sealed the outcome.
“Everybody had high hopes for us to come out and play the right way, but it didn’t go that way today,” said Andre Drummond, who finished with 15 points, 17 rebounds and three blocks in 31 minutes. “We’ve got 24 games left. We’ve got to figure out what we need to do to get these wins to get back in the playoff race.”
As important as anything on that checklist: get the second unit right again – and the Pistons can’t afford to wait for Reggie Jackson’s return to allow Ish Smith to revert to the role Van Gundy prefers for him.