MEMPHIS – The Pistons, officially eliminated from the playoffs while idle on Saturday, played Sunday with half an eye toward next season.
Marcus Morris, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Aron Baynes sat so Stan Van Gundy could thrust Boban Marjanovic, Henry Ellenson, Stanley Johnson, Reggie Bullock and Darrun Hilliard into broader roles and a greater variety of matchups.
It came against a Memphis team with no greater stakes, the Grizzlies already locked in as the West’s No. 7 seed – and a first-round matchup with San Antonio – but it did little to diminish Van Gundy’s ability to assess what he saw.
The Pistons came from nine points down at halftime to win going away, outscoring Memphis by 22 points in the second half and dominating the third quarter 27-10 against Memphis’ starters.
“We made that run against their main guys. That was impressive,” Stan Van Gundy said. “Then (Memphis coach David Fizdale) shut it down and we played younger guys against younger guys, but in the third quarter that run was made against their main guys, their starters, so that was the impressive part to me. The defensive end was terrific in the third quarter.”
Van Gundy’s starters included Reggie Bullock for Caldwell-Pope and Tobias Harris for Morris at small forward with Jon Leuer at power forward. But the minutes – and the scoring load – were split pretty much right down the middle with no starter playing more than Ish Smith’s 27 minutes and not one of the five reserves playing less than Beno Udrih’s 21.
Alas, it might be the last 21 minutes Udrih plays for the season, and quite possibly for the Pistons. An unrestricted free agent at season’s end, Udrih twisted his knee late after contributing 11 points and five assists to the win. Udrih left FedEx Forum with a sleeve on his right knee and a noticeable limp.
“I think he did something,” Van Gundy said. “I’m not optimistic that we’ll have him these last two games.”
If Udrih can’t go in the season’s last two games – Monday night as the curtain closes on the Pistons’ 29-year run at The Palace and Wednesday at Orlando – Van Gundy indicated the Pistons would more than likely patch the backup point guard minutes together with some combination of Hilliard and Johnson while extending Smith’s minutes.
Hilliard and Bullock gave the Pistons 27 points out of the shooting guard spot, combining to make 7 of 12 3-point shots. More than any other single factor, subpar 3-point shooting has undermined the Pistons’ offense this season. They rank 26th in the league in attempts and 28th in accuracy. They have the NBA’s No. 9 defense, but rank 25th on offense.
“That’s what I said after the game,” Van Gundy said. “We were playing hard, but the ball’s got to go in and we finally started making some shots. The whole game looks different when the ball goes in the basket. You have to be able to shoot the ball. That’s been a major issue with us and one that through development and whatever we do with our roster’s got to change next year.”
Ellenson helped with the 3-point barrage, too, hitting 3 of 5 in the second half.
“Again, my shot felt real good tonight,” Ellenson said. “Just early on, shots were in and out and guys kept feeding me open ones. Just give me the confidence to shoot the next one and tell me let it go right away, don’t even think about it. It was nice to get those threes up late in the game. The way we closed out as a team was real big, just everyone hitting shots, everyone moving the ball around. That was a lot of fun.”
Ellenson also endeared himself to Van Gundy by grabbing nine rebounds in his 28 minutes, giving him 20 in the weekend sweep of Houston and Memphis. For Ellenson to convince Van Gundy he’s ready to be in the rotation next season – and possibly to influence off-season roster moves – he’ll need a level of confidence that Ellenson is ready to rebound and defend consistently.
“He’s mentioned rebounding a lot to me just because he knows for next year, that’s going to be a huge part of me being on the floor, maybe with a smaller unit,” Ellenson said. “That’s something I’ve always done. Being a huge part of my game is going to be part of my success on the court.”
Speaking of huge … Boban: another solid outing with 23 minutes, 14 points on 4 of 6 shooting and 6 of 7 free throws, plus 10 boards.
Somebody asked him what was the difference in the second half. Andre Drummond, seated to the locker at Marjanovic’s left, said, “Him.”
Marjanovic pointed to the shooting of Bullock and Hilliard, instead.
“They played great. They helped a lot,” he said. “Last game, Stanley. This time, Reggie, Henry and Darrun. Next game, it’ll be somebody else. This is a team.”
One, perhaps, taking shape for next season over this one’s final stretch.