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Drummond's line struggles could stall Detroit's growth

Free throw failures puts Pistons' star on bench during crucial times

POSTED: Apr 23, 2016 1:36 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond (0) missed the final six minutes of Friday's Game 3 against Cleveland after going 1 for 6 from the free throw line.

— The formula for winning NBA playoff games isn't just a closely guarded secret, it's up there with that riddle-wrapped-in-a-mystery-inside-an-enigma stuff, the code uncrackable even with Apple and the FBI working as partners.

But the formula for not winning NBA playoff games? That, or at least one version of it, was out there in the public domain like shareware Friday night at The Palace of Auburn Hills.

Any team is virtually guaranteed to lose not just games in the postseason but entire series when:

1. Its sole All-Star and franchise player, healthy and otherwise available, sits out the final six minutes of a game that's fiercely contested and ugly enough down the stretch that a play here or there could have made the difference.

2. Uh ... there is no No. 2. This isn't a Stephen Hawking seminar, Einstein.

Nothing beyond No. 1 was needed to doom the Detroit Pistons in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference first round series against the Cleveland Cavaliers. No other factors loomed larger -- digging Detroit its 0-3 hole and posing a challenge for the Pistons not just Sunday in Game 4 but potentially for seasons to come -- than center Andre Drummond's inability to stay on the floor in the most pivotal minutes.

Drummond's notorious struggles from the free-throw line are impacting the Pistons' fortunes at the highest level he or they have achieved in their four NBA seasons together. Coach Stan Van Gundy's hook has grown increasingly quick, inversely related to his patience, when the 6-foot-11, 279-pound center's Achilles heel gets smacked in the league's worst example of Hack-A-Shaq, or in this case Beat-A-Drum, tactics.

Van Gundy yanked Drummond for the night with 6:02 remaining Friday, sat him down in a game that had 19 lead changes, 13 ties and, seconds earlier, saw the Pistons creep within 87-86. The Cavaliers retreated into a timeout, came back to get a 3-pointer from guard Kyrie Irving, then went looking for Drummond with fouling intent.

So the big man stepped to the line and -- clang! clunk! -- missed both free throws. Van Gundy had seen enough, once again. He subbed in backup Aron Baynes for his gifted 22-year-old starter and that was that.

When Kentavious Caldwell-Pope ignited The Palace with a breakout dunk millimeters out of LeBron James' chase-down reach to make it 92-90, Drummond cheered. When the clock ticked down to two minutes, that point in the game when fouls away from the ball are rendered moot, Drummond stayed on the side.

And when Cavs guard Matthew Dellavedova used the unbroken vista he had along the baseline to find Irving in the corner for the game's dagger -- only :00.7 remained on the shot clock when he caught Dellavedova's pass and instantly turned it around for 3-ball for a 98-90 lead -- Drummond sat and watched. His dazzling athletic ability and that double-wide wingspan that might have been able to deflect or alter the pass? Already punched out.

Lots of big men get themselves into foul trouble late in important games. None -- not Van Gundy's old thorn Dwight Howard in Houston, not DeAndre Jordan with the Clippers -- is forced out so often, so irritatingly, with foul-shooting trouble.

"Yeah, because you can't do anything with him," said Van Gundy, clearly exasperated by both the circumstances of the series and the constant need to coach around his alleged best player. "He can't run to set a screen, he can't do anything. You've just got opportunities to foul him."

The coach added: "But I gave him one possession [the two bricked free throws]. We're behind. We can't go down and play for zero points. Even though we did, we just, we can't do that. He had energy, but Tristan Thompson had eight offensive rebounds. Hardly a dominant performance. He had offensive energy."

Giving Drummond one possession, which means one trip to the line knowing he'd better not miss, on top of the pressure he already shoulders in those 15-foot nightmares? Yeah, that's probably real helpful.

This is a tough situation, a predicament frankly, that ought to worry Pistons fans beyond Sunday's Game 4. Either Drummond is going to have to start shooting free throws better (he actually has gotten worse the past three years, from 41.8 percent to 38.9 and now 35.5) to justify his presence in the game or Van Gundy and Detroit's ownership will have to throw itself on the mercy of the league's Competition Committee in the hope that the Beat-A-Drum strategy gets legislated away.

Failing either of those two options, it's hard to imagine Van Gundy and Drummond -- both good guys and both extremely valuable to Detroit's little resurgence here -- happily co-existing over the long haul. No team can expect to be taken seriously, or make a serious run at championship contention, if it repeatedly has to transform its identity at the most important time in critical games to hide its star's failings.

For now, the problem hasn't graduated to crisis, though the Pistons' looming elimination could goose it a few spots. Drummond was calm enough when he talked with reporters afterward, though plenty of NBA stars would either be angry over their coach's decision or humiliated by such a glaring flaw.

Asked if he felt helpless or frustrated sitting there while the Pistons fate got decided, Drummond said: "I'm not sure about helpless. I'm not sure about that one. It's a little frustrating. Helpless [is] a bad choice of words.

"No. When I come out of the games I just try to cheer for my teammates, whoever's on the floor. It doesn't really matter. Stan knows what he's doing so I just try to do my part as a team player. ... I don't control my minutes or what he does down the stretch in games. I just stay prepared and stay ready for when the moment comes."

Uh yeah, but that moment isn't coming anymore. Not in fourth quarters anyway. Drummond has played just 12:59 of the 36 minutes available in the three games, and his departure times have crept up on him. He was done for the night with 2:58 left in Game 1, with 3:59 to play in Game 2 and at the 6:02 mark Friday.

Though the Pistons lost by 10, Drummond was their only starter who wasn't in the negative in plus/minus; he broke even at 0. For the series, he's at minus-8, which isn't bad considering Cleveland has outscored Detroit by 32 points. That breaks down to a different of eight points in Drummond's 100 minutes and 24 in the 44 minutes he's sat.

Drummond's numbers through the three games are off -- 16.7 points, 8.3 rebounds -- but they nose-dive near the end. He has a total of three points and four rebounds in his limited fourth-quarter exposure.

Part of being a good teammate -- and Drummond is sincere in that desire, a leader despite his tender years and popular in the locker room -- means coming through when they need you most. In that way, at least, he's failing the other Pistons big-time.

They know Drummond is stuck in a special kind of basketball hell, but they also know the burden shifts toward them when he goes out and there still are games to be won. It sounds hard all around.

"It's tough," point guard Reggie Jackson said. "We understand we have one of our cornerstones just on the bench in tough stretches. ... It's been tough on him. He's trying to remain confident, of course. Always putting in work and trying to find a way to affect the game in other ways.

"It's a call that coach is making to try and give ourselves a chance. We've been trying to figure it out, how to get around it and beat them. We still feel like he played well tonight, that he's going to have confidence, he's going to make some free throws here and there and also to combat that. And once he does that, protect the rim on the other end, not give them easy baskets going towards the basket and allow the rest of the team to push up and also take away threes."

That's the Pistons' preferred formula. Cleveland, though, was the team that did the distilling Friday, getting star play out of its star players and clutch buckets particularly from Irving. He, James and Kevin Love have scored 212 of the Cavaliers' 314 points and were on the court for the late heroics and jubilation, delighting in Irving's clock-beating 3-pointer.

Drummond was over on the side, his sweat dried, spectating like the other 21,584 in the building, his seat as reserved as theirs.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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