AUBURN HILLS – The Pistons opponent rolling into Little Caesars Arena tonight has a 2-9 record. That helps explain why Atlanta makes Stan Van Gundy very nervous. Very, very nervous.
“We said to our guys, you’ve got to be smart enough to get past their record and understand what their last two games have been – a win at Cleveland and a very tough loss to Boston, who’s got the best record in the league. And then they’ve been off since Monday. So they’ve got a lot of energy. If you’re really looking at this game intelligently as a player, you understand that you’re going to play a high-energy team tonight who is feeling good about themselves and playing well.
The 8-3 start to the Pistons season is beginning to catch the basketball world’s attention. The Pistons enter tonight’s game as one of only two NBA teams – joining company with reigning champion Golden State, one of the Pistons’ eight victims – to rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. It’s the sort of thing that stirs attention. For a team accustomed to being far removed from the spotlight, it can be dizzying.
“It’s impossible (to shut it out) and so it’s how you deal with it,” Van Gundy said. “These guys hear everything, see everything. So maintaining an even demeanor and a focus and an energy level of what you have to do every night is not easy. I think guys have to be far more mentally tough now than they’ve ever had to be because of that stuff.”
There’s not a whiff of fluke to the Pistons record. They’re 3-0 in back to backs and are No. 6 in the NBA in point differential – trailing Golden State, Boston, Houston, Portland and Toronto. Their statistical underpinnings are all indicative of a winning team.
At the heart of it are all things that appear to have staying power: the summer commitment by franchise cornerstones Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson to defense and leadership that’s been on display; Avery Bradley’s impact on defensive demeanor; Stanley Johnson’s emergence as a defensive force and vastly improved perimeter shooter; Tobias Harris’ summer focus on shooting translating into 50 percent more 3-point shots and elite efficiency; depth and contributions up and down the roster.
“Everything’s sustainable if you continue to bring the same focus and energy, but that’s the challenge,” Van Gundy said. “I think that we have seen that we’ve also got the other in us. Not to belabor it, but the Laker game is a vivid memory for me. At any time we let down or just think we’ve got some margin for error where we don’t have to bring great energy and focus, then everything will change – including the results.
“It’s 82 games and it’s handling success and adversity and being able to be consistent. So now everybody’s talking about how good we are and that scares the (bleep) out of me. It really does. Are we mature enough to handle that?”
Of the three Pistons losses, two in particular – a home loss to Philadelphia in which the Pistons fell behind early and only briefly got back on the periphery of contention, and the loss at Los Angeles after the Pistons opened the road trip by beating the Clippers and Warriors in a back to back – stick with Van Gundy.
“I just know we have both in us. We have really good basketball in us and when we don’t bring a focus and an energy, we’ve got really bad basketball in us, too. Our guys have to recognize that. That’s not being negative at all. When we bring what we’re supposed to bring, we can play really good basketball. But if we don’t …”
Hosting the 2-9 Atlanta Hawks with the Pistons 6-1 over their last seven games should be a pretty solid litmus test for what it says about their altered maturity levels.