AUBURN HILLS – The Pistons best defensive game of the season came without their two top individual defenders, Avery Bradley and Stanley Johnson. If there’s a lesson in holding San Antonio to 79 points and 37 percent shooting, it’s that the training camp talk of a different level of camaraderie was more than empty words.
It would have been easy to give in to the heavy odds the Pistons – down not just Bradley and Johnson, but Reggie Jackson and Jon Leuer, as well – faced against San Antonio. That they didn’t and posted a wire-to-wire win even in a game where their 3-point shooting was subpar speaks to the environment created by Stan Van Gundy and sustained by a close-knit locker room.
“I told the guys before the game, ‘We’re dangerous right now,’ ” Anthony Tolliver said. “We’ve still got guys out there that can play.”
The Pistons are going to have to get accustomed to playing without Jackson, who’ll likely be out until after the All-Star break at minimum, but the outlook brightened for Bradley’s imminent return on Sunday. The Pistons held a light practice with reintegrating Bradley, who’s missed seven games with a groin injury, as the primary focus in a scrimmage that lasted a quarter.
“He looked good,” Van Gundy said. “It’s a matter of how he feels (the next day). Twelve minutes isn’t a lot, but the plan was to do that today and (Monday) is a day off for those guys but he’ll come in and shoot and then Tuesday would be to practice and then we’ll see from there if he’s ready to go or not.”
Getting Bradley back for the first game of 2018, Wednesday at Miami, would be a morale booster and give Van Gundy another weapon for his suddenly depleted perimeter. Johnson might also be good to go and missing San Antonio with a strained hip flexor.
If he’s not, the Pistons will still head into a rugged stretch to open the new year – three games in four days against Miami, Philadelphia and Houston – feeling better about themselves in large measure because of the way Reggie Bullock and Luke Kennard played in the 14-point win over San Antonio.
Both established career highs in scoring, Bullock with 22 and Kennard 20, and their development makes the Pistons that much more diverse and dangerous offensively.
Bullock, who carries a 9-2 record as a starter, has established himself as a staple of the rotation. Van Gundy called him “one of our six starters” – an illusion to Van Gundy’s recent decision to start Tolliver against teams with two big men in the starting lineup and Kennard against teams that start smaller. Kennard will go back to a conventional bench role upon Bradley’s return and Bullock will either start at small forward or come off the bench when Tolliver starts opposite Tobias Harris at forward.
The member of Van Gundy’s wing corps struggling at the moment is Langston Galloway, who since going 15 of 29 from the 3-point arc over a three-game stretch earlier this month has gone 7 of 33 in the past five games. Van Gundy said the Pistons are working to correct a mechanical flaw in Galloway’s form that’s seen him drifting upon elevation.
They can afford to let Galloway work out the kinks on his own or in limited minutes if Bradley returns for Miami and Kennard continues to play the way he did against the Spurs.
I’ll have more on Bullock and Kennard – and how Kennard has picked up on how Bullock has made himself an effective role player – on Tuesday.