When the Pistons host Atlanta at The Palace tonight, they’ll be looking to win their fourth straight game since losing a whacky double-overtime decision at Atlanta last week – a game marked by a ferocious fourth-quarter comeback crafted entirely by their five-man bench unit of Will Bynum, Rodney Stuckey, Andre Drummond, Charlie Villanueva and Austin Daye.
That game crystallized the viability of that unit, which only recently came together with Daye brought out of deep storage, Bynum back in the rotation when Lawrence Frank bumped his backcourt mix back to four from three and Villanueva holding on to the job he won in late November. The bench scored 39 points in the fourth quarter to wipe out Atlanta’s 22-point lead and Frank rolled with them through both overtimes before they finally ran out of steam.
But in the final seconds of regulation, Stuckey twisted his left ankle that night and hasn’t played in any of the three games since. The bench was even better two nights later at Miami without him, scoring 41 points in a dazzling second quarter to erase a 15-point lead and spark the season’s signature win, and a net plus again in Sunday’s win over Milwaukee.
With Stuckey still missing and Villanueva tossed in the first half against Sacramento for a flagrant-2 foul, though, the bench was suddenly undermanned, if still effective.
Stuckey was back at practice on Thursday, however, and is likely to play against Atlanta – though it will likely depend on how it responds to practice and Friday’s shootaround before testing it in pregame work – while Villanueva got word of a $25,000 fine but no suspension, meaning he’ll be back in the mix, as well.
“I’m excited to play them,” Villanueva said. “It went down to the wire. We competed and came back. I know they’re going to be ready for us, but we’re going to be ready for them, as well.”
The mix of players on the second unit has brought out the best of their individual traits. Stuckey and Bynum love to attack in pick-and-roll situations, which allows Drummond to dive to the rim for lobs or clean up offensive rebounds as interior defenders become occupied trying to seal off driving lanes. All that focus on the paint leaves snipers Daye and Villanueva with openings at the 3-point line.
“We’re having fun, talking out there, five guys on the same page,” Villanueva said. “We’re playing good basketball now and it’s not only on the offensive end. On the defensive end, we’re doing our part, too.”
Drummond, of course, is the defensive anchor, blocking nearly two shots a game and averaging almost 11 rebounds in his last six games.
“We’re all starting to come together now,” Drummond said. “The mix we have now at different times is great combinations and we’re starting to feed off each other. Things are going our way.”
“I think the second unit has been one of the major factors as far as spreading the floor,” Villanueva said. “We’re just playing with a lot more energy and being more focused, but as a whole we’re playing great defense. Our defense has picked up and we seem more focused out there.”