A 1-2 punch at center – Drummond, Moreland – as Pistons roar back from wobbly start to beat Bucks

Andre Drummond established a career high with 14 free throws made in a big second half as the Pistons beat Milwaukee
Jesse D. Garrabrant (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

It took Andre Drummond 36 attempts to establish his previous career high in free throws made – 13 – in a January 2016 night at Houston that left even Rockets players muttering about the strategy employed by then-coach J.B. Bickerstaff. It took him 16 attempts to break his record in Friday’s comeback win over Milwaukee.

“I put in a lot of work, messed around with different forms throughout my career, tried different things to get myself comfortable,” Drummond said after the 105-96 win over the Bucks. “It all came back to going back to the basics. I went back to the first one in high school, what I did to get myself comfortable at the line.”

“Their strategy was to hammer him down low and I don’t think that strategy is going to work this year,” Stan Van Gundy said. “A night like tonight, that’s not a fluke. If you’re a 35 percent shooter in your career and you go 8 for 16, maybe you had a good night. But 14 for 16? And you saw ’em. They all looked good. It wasn’t like he was banking ’em in. We’ve seen it for a solid five or six weeks. I’m not surprised by it tonight.”

It started as anything but a night to remember for Drummond. He picked up a foul one second into the game, inexplicably grabbing Bucks center John Henson before anyone could win the opening tip. Five minutes later, he had to sit after picking up a second foul, almost equally silly, 40 feet from the basket.

There was a time – like, last season – when such a listless start would have hung over him all night. This time, he dominated the second half, taking and making all of his free throws. He made 5 of 7 shots and took nothing outside arm’s length of the rim, grabbed 15 rebounds – a dozen after halftime – blocked two shots and recorded one steal.

“I think his maturity has been his biggest improvement,” Van Gundy said. “We see the free-throw shooting, but the maturity has been really great. He’s much more focused, much more level headed. He will – like any player – in the heat of the battle, he’ll lose it. But he comes back quickly now. You can just talk to him and get his head back in the game. He’s not checking out. He’s focused on what he has to do.”

If Drummond carried the Pistons home, his understudy – Eric Moreland, playing because Jon Leuer was out with an ankle sprain – helped get the Pistons turned around. In 15 first-half minutes, Moreland hit all three of his shot attempts – including a left-handed stab hook from the baseline – grabbed six rebounds and blocked a shot. He was plus-15, helping the Pistons erase an early nine-point deficit after the Bucks opened 9 of 11.

“Fantastic,” Van Gundy said of Moreland. “I thought Eric was super tonight when we had to go the bench early. We had gotten off to a bad start defensively and I thought our bench really picked us up in that first quarter and he was a big part of that.”

After serving as Drummond’s backup in the first two games, Moreland had played about five minutes spread over garbage time of three games in the last six. He’d yet to take a shot this season.

“It feels good to have a decent game tonight and hopefully build some trust with Coach for the future,” Moreland said. “I’ll be ready any time he calls my name to try to bring the same energy.”

“That’s what he does,” said another member of the bench unit that yanked momentum away from the Bucks, Anthony Tolliver. “He’s been doing it since September. He’s another spark-plug guy, energy guy, offensive rebounds, all over the floor. He did his job – played really good defense and was great on the boards.”

Tolliver did his job, as well, including spot minutes against Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo, leading the league with a 31.3 scoring average coming in. Stanley Johnson spent the bulk of his 38 minutes on Antetokounmpo, who required 27 shots to get to 29 points, and kept him away from the rim most of the night.

“Right now, he’s as tough as it gets,” Johnson said. “Good game for him. I don’t think I did a good job on him – I think we won the game, though. He’s a tough guy, especially inside for me. I gave up a lot of height to him. A.T.’s a little different – he gives up a little speed. But I think we just made everything tough for him at the rim. That’s the biggest thing. You can’t be soft at the rim.”

The Pistons surely were not in boosting their record to 6-3 and erasing the disappointment of their loss to the Lakers to wrap up a road trip that began with stirring wins over the Clippers and Warriors. And nobody was less soft than Andre Drummond, who recovered from a dreadful start that might have rendered him mute in his recent past. The ability to shoot free throws, it seems, has manifested by spilling over into all parts of his game.

“It changes the entire dynamic of our team,” Tolliver said of Drummond’s surging confidence. “He has so much more confidence, just being aggressive. Teams can’t just ful him and put him on the line now, which takes a whole different approach. They have to guard him. It just changes everything. As long as he continues that way, we’re going to be tough to beat.”

FAST BREAKDOWN

Three quick observations from Friday night’s 105-96 win over the Milwaukee Bucks at Little Caesars Arena

1-ANDRE’S BIG TURNAROUND – Maybe the best thing that happened to the Pistons in their bounce-back win was Andre Drummond picking up two bad fouls – one on the opening tip! – in the first five minutes. Milwaukee sprinted to an early nine-point lead, making 9 of 11 shots, and scored 20 points in the first half of the first quarter. But the tenor of the game changed dramatically with Drummond on the bench. The Bucks shot 11 of 32 to close the first half as the Pistons went from nine down to 14 ahead before Khris Middleton’s 3-pointer beat the halftime buzzer. The Pistons spent most of the second half protecting leads ranging as high as 18 points and doing so because Drummond turned dominant – and made 14 of 16 free throws along the way. He finished with 24 points, 15 rebounds, two blocks and a steal – 18 points and 12 rebounds after halftime and all of his free throws. Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley each hit 3 of 4 from the 3-point line in the first half – th rest of the team was 0 of 9 – with Bradley scoring 19 of his 23 and Harris 11 of his 13 points in the half. In the first game since the Pistons shot just three free throws in losing to the Lakers, they shot 28.

2-STANLEY STEAMER – Andre Drummond’s free throws, Avery Bradley’s big first half and the pinch-hitting role of Eric Moreland – keep reading – will grab more attention, especially given Stanley Johnson’s eight-point, 4 of 10 shooting night, but his playing time numbers – a team-high 38 minutes – again give a broad clue as to what Stan Van Gundy thought of his contribtuions. Assigned primarily to guard the NBA’s leading scorer, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Johnson made him work for his 29 points, requiring 27 shots. With about 1:30 to play and the Pistons nursing a nine-point lead, Johnson made perhaps the game-clinching play. After a Pistons turnover and Antetokounmpo loose in the open court – likely a basket and perhaps and three-point opportunity – Johnson hustled back to flick the ball away and chase it down before it went out of bounds. Van Gundy played Johnson nearly 22 second-half minutes, leaving him out to start the fourth quarter with an otherwise-bench unit. That’s when Antetokounmpo went to the bench, so Johnson guarded Milwaukee’s best remaining scorer, Khris Middleton. Middleton was limited to one free throw over the first five-plus minutes of the quarter before Jason Kidd brought Antetokounmpo back and his physical defense prompted Middleton to react and start barking at him with Johnson responding in kind. Antetokounmpo tried to back Johnson down and use his height, but Johnson’s great lower-body strength often left the Bucks willowy star taking slightly off-balance shots.

3-MORE MORELAND – To add injury to the insult of losing to the Lakers to wrap up their three-game road trip earlier this week, Jon Leuer sprained his left ankle late and missed the Milwaukee game. Leuer has shot poorly this season – 42 percent despite most of his shots coming within 15 feet and only three 3-point attempts among his 36 shots – but Stan Van Gundy complimented the rest of Leuer’s contributions, from his defense to his movement and passing on offense. With Leuer unavailable, Eric Moreland got the call from Stan Van Gundy when Andre Drummond picked up two bad fouls in the first five minutes and Moreland helped turn the game around. After that hot Bucks start, Moreland helped turn the tide defensively. In 15 first-half minutes – he returned for the final two minutes of the half when Van Gundy moved to protect Drummond from a third foul – Moreland finished with six points, five rebounds and a blocked shot and was a team-best plus-15. Moreland finished with six points and nine rebounds in 20 quality minutes.

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