DETROIT – Not since Stan Van Gundy’s first days as an NBA coach in Miami, when he caught the infancy of Dwyane Wade’s career and the back side of Shaquille O’Neal’s prime, has he had the luxury of automatic fourth-quarter decisions.
Even with the Orlando team he coached to the 2009 NBA Finals and deep into the playoffs other seasons, Dwight Howard – as dominant as he was at the defensive end – wasn’t a guy you’d throw the ball to and clear out.
With a game the Pistons couldn’t afford to lose on the line Wednesday night, that’s what Van Gundy dialed up for Blake Griffin.
“That’s why those guys are those guys,” he said after Griffin scored 11 points in the game’s final seven minutes to stay unbeaten since joining the Pistons. “Because what are you going to do? You’re going to play him one on one or you’re going to come on a double. He can pass. He can score. He’s done some things since he’s been here in the four games, but that was his best offense for us. He just took over the last four minutes of the game. He just took over and did a great job.”
When the Pistons have played teams that line up with a star of Griffin’s pedigree, pregame press conferences have often produced some of Van Gundy’s classic zingers. When the Pistons hosted Houston last month and the Rockets were without James Harden, Van Gundy said, “With him out, now they only have one Hall of Fame guard (Chris Paul), so they’re really down and out. I really don’t understand how they’re ever able to win a game.”
And when the Pistons went to Cleveland last week and Van Gundy was asked about the pressures associated with running a team of which LeBron James is a member, he replied, “Yeah, it’s really tough, the pressure that comes with having a guy like LeBron. How you overcome that, boy, I don’t know. That’s a special problem and I’m sure they’d be better off if they didn’t have that problem.”
In all of those and similar responses, Van Gundy left enough space between the lines for anyone to interpret his meaning with unerring clarity: “Please, burden me with such problems.”
And less than 24 hours after his tongue-firmly-in-cheek response to the burdens of employing LeBron James, Van Gundy had himself a bona fide NBA superstar. The Griffin trade went down the following day and the Pistons have won five straight games since losing their eighth straight that night in Cleveland.
Wednesday night, he simply dialed up Griffin’s number – time after time after time – and watched him go to work.
Griffin had struggled to that point, scoring 14 points on 4 of 13 shooting over the first three quarters. Even as he’d led the Pistons to wins in each of his first three games – averaging 20.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 6.0 assists – he hadn’t been fully satisfied with his play.
“I haven’t really felt like I’ve scored the ball well,” he said after the 115-106 win over the Nets. “We finished out games pretty well and all that, but I haven’t really gotten into a groove yet. Normally, it’s early in games that I kind of find that groove. But getting wins, you’ll take ’em however you can get ’em. Just have to keep at it.”
For Stanley Johnson, who’s flourished since the trade and played Sundance Kid to Griffin’s Butch Cassidy with nine of his 19 points coming in the fourth quarter, watching Griffin do his thing has been a revelation.
“That’s an ace in your back pocket right there,” he said. “We can just get two points on the board in a struggle situation. That’s a luxury I don’t think I’ve ever really had here to the extent that he does it and I’m having a good time playing with him.”
Van Gundy has been on the other side of that before, watching an All-Star lurch his way through the first 40 minutes of a game and then dial it up in crunch time.
“With the great players in the league, you’ve got to have a short memory,” he said. “How you’re going the whole game doesn’t matter. It’s winning time and you’ve got to be willing to shoulder the responsibility of making the right plays.”
For much of his time with the Clippers, Griffin wasn’t the undisputed closer because he was playing alongside Paul, the pre-eminent playmaker of his generation.
“You always want to play to the strength of your guys and for us there, the ball was in C.P.’s hands a lot,” he said. “I was still involved late game, but it was more setting a screen and rolling and playing off of that. So it’s just a little bit different look, but it’s something I definitely look forward to doing more and more.”
Two years ago when the Pistons crashed the playoff field, Reggie Jackson led the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring and had the ball in his hands almost exclusively in late-game situations to run pick-and-roll plays with Andre Drummond. When Jackson returns from injury, likely in early March, Van Gundy will again have that as an option.
That will complicate his late-game decision making. Maybe some opposing coach will get to poke fun at his dilemma for a change.