Mix and Match

Ideal of maximizing combinations a step closer to reality with Orlando win

Lawrence Frank was able to mix and match players to close out Sunday's game against Orlando.
Fernando Medina (NBAE/Getty)
Even as their second unit was racking up eye-popping scoring numbers and setting the Pistons on a winning path, the coaches knew there would come a time when they would need to integrate the two units, starters and bench. That there would be games when Greg Monroe’s post scoring presence or Brandon Knight’s defense and 3-point shooting would be needed to complement the pick-and-roll artistry of Will Bynum or the rim-protecting presence of Andre Drummond.

One of the most notable successes of the hybrid unit came down the stretch in Sunday’s win over Orlando, when Lawrence Frank closed out the game with Bynum and Knight in the backcourt and Charlie Villanueva at power forward next to Monroe and Tayshaun Prince.

While Villanueva and Bynum have been on the floor to close games – even games that hang in the balance – it’s almost without exception been with their second unit intact, especially in Villanueva’s case.

Frank’s commitment to defense overrides other concerns, so it stands to reason that the first thing he mentioned after Sunday’s 104-102 win was Villanueva’s defense. Orlando punished the Pistons with 33 third-quarter points, 24 of them in the paint when first Jason Maxiell and then Andre Drummond’s presence didn’t seem to deter the Magic from attacking the basket.

“I thought he was really good defensively – I mean, really good,” Frank said. “We had to try to find a combination that could get stops and I really liked Charlie’s defensive intent. Right when he came into the game, he got a deflection to a rebound. He was in the right position. He was, four times, the guy who had to blitz (J.J.) Redick and I just thought he was in tune, locked in, did a nice job.”

On the other end, Villanueva clearly brings a dynamic Maxiell or Drummond cannot with his uncanny 3-point shooting ability. Even when he’s not taking or making them, necessarily, his impact can be felt, Frank said. Bynum and Drummond have formed a strong chemistry on pick-and-roll plays that often end with Drummond dunking. Less celebrated but perhaps equally effective for its impact on forcing defenses to respond is the Villanueva-Bynum pick-and-pop play.

“Sometimes Charlie impacts the offense in many different ways,” Frank said. “One is the obvious – he can make shots. Two is when he’s a screener and they don’t want to leave his body, well, that gets Will in the paint.”

Frank talked a day earlier about the necessity of players from one unit learning how to be effective playing with two or three players from the other unit.

“Not everything can be perfect for each guy,” he said. “It’s not what works best for you; it’s what works best for the team. We’ve got to be able to do it on both ends and do it with different combinations.”

The win over Orlando was important in that it kept the Pistons on the fringe of playoff contention, just four games behind Boston for the East’s last berth. But it was important in the larger sense, too, for the evidence that players who’ve experienced success with one unit can translate their strengths to another, giving Frank more options over the season’s second half.