Boston’s bench, 3-point firepower overwhelm Pistons in return from All-Star break

Ish Smith scored 20 points and played Kyrie Irving essentially to a draw but the Pistons couldn’t match Boston’s firepower in losing their first game out of the All-Star break.
Chris Schwegler/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

DETROIT – Ish Smith gave the Pistons everything they could have asked from him, essentially playing All-Star Kyrie Irving to a standoff. The Pistons can’t wait to get him back to the second unit. Alas, they must.

The Pistons bench was outscored by Boston’s 65-21 in their 110-98 loss coming out of the All-Star break and those two sets of numbers speak to the quandary Stan Van Gundy faces.

A healthy Jackson not only gives the Pistons a dynamic pick-and-roll playmaker with the first unit, it pushes Smith to the bench. That bench was as big a reason as any that the Pistons were 19-14 and sitting in the No. 4 seed when Jackson went down with an injury on Dec. 26.

They went 4-12 without Jackson until Blake Griffin arrived. They pushed themselves back into the playoff picture by going 5-3 with Griffin in the lineup leading to the All-Star break, but they’re hanging by their fingernails. Friday’s loss leaves them at two games under .500 with 24 to play – and 15 of those will come on the road.

Jackson is inching toward a return, but it’s likely at least a few weeks away. In the meantime, Smith either remains the starter or gives Van Gundy a different problem – who starts at point guard? – if he’s reunited with the bench unit he led so successfully over the first 33 games. With Smith at the wheel, that second unit prospered in transition.

Jameer Nelson remains a steady hand, but his days of pushing the pace are well behind him. What is the identity of a Pistons second unit that includes Nelson, Anthony Tolliver, Luke Kennard and James Ennis?

“Right now, none,” Van Gundy glumly admitted after Friday’s setback.

The Pistons led 28-23 after a crisply played first quarter, but the offense ground to a halt to start the second quarter as their lead disappeared for good. They scored all of four points in nearly the first five minutes of the period and were outscored 38-21 in the second.

“I thought first quarter we did a great job of playing with energy,” said Blake Griffin, who struggled through a 5 of 19 shooting night, finishing with 17 points. “I thought we were fresh. Then second through fourth, I thought we just had no energy, had no drive. I thought we were trying, but it just kind of looked like everybody was moving in slow motion a little bit.”

All those missed shots from Van Gundy’s second unit loosened up Boston’s transition offense and put the Pistons in some mismatches that resulted in plenty of wide-open shots. The Celtics responded by drilling 11 of 21 triples on their way to 17 3-pointers for the game, tying a season high by a Pistons opponent.

“I thought there were three things in the game,” Van Gundy said. “Our bench was not good; the second quarter was really where the game was decided – everything else was competitive; and obviously their threes – and our threes.”

The Celtics got triples from seven different players in the first half alone, including a pair apiece from Marcus Smart – a 28 percent 3-point shooter against the rest of the NBA but a killer against the Pistons – and Daniel Thies, an undrafted rookie from Germany who soared past his previous career high (12 points) to finish with 19 points and seven rebounds.

The Pistons, meanwhile, hit 4 of 6 triples to start the game but then required 27 more attempts to hit another half-dozen.

“They shot six more than us and made seven more than us,” Van Gundy said, wincing. “I thought we had some really good looks at threes and didn’t knock anything in.”

The Celtics turned a one-point lead into a 12-point lead over the final four-plus minutes of the second quarter, but the Pistons starters again played well to start the second half and had the deficit at four late in the third quarter. Van Gundy’s bench again struggled, though, and a 7-0 Boston run to start the fourth quarter made it a 16-point game and essentially sealed the outcome.

“Everybody had high hopes for us to come out and play the right way, but it didn’t go that way today,” said Andre Drummond, who finished with 15 points, 17 rebounds and three blocks in 31 minutes. “We’ve got 24 games left. We’ve got to figure out what we need to do to get these wins to get back in the playoff race.”

As important as anything on that checklist: get the second unit right again – and the Pistons can’t afford to wait for Reggie Jackson’s return to allow Ish Smith to revert to the role Van Gundy prefers for him.


Three quick observations from Friday night’s 110-98 loss to the Boston Celtics at Little Caesars Arena

1-COSTLY LOSS – Every loss exacts a pound of flesh now. The Pistons have precious little margin for error and can’t afford to lose many games – if any – at home or against teams with losing records or competing with them for a playoff berth. Friday’s loss counted in one of those categories, at least, as the Pistons lost one of their last 10 home games. Awful starts to the second and fourth quarters were a big part of their undoing in this one. A five-point first quarter lead disappeared when the Pistons managed just four points in nearly five minutes to start the second quarter. And a 7-0 Boston run as the Pistons went scoreless over the first 4:20 of the fourth quarter spanning seven possessions gave the Celtics a 16-point lead. The Pistons played well at both ends in the first quarter and led 28-23. Boston closed the first half with a 19-8 run over the final 4:29 to take a 12-point lead. The Celtics hit 11 of 21 first-half triples, getting 3-pointers from seven different players and having four players hit a pair of them. The Pistons opened 4 of 6 from three, but finished just 10 of 33. Boston hit 17 of 39 from the 3-point arc, matching the season high for triples – reached four times previously – against the Pistons this season.

2-BENCH BEATING – Stan Van Gundy’s rotation coming out of the All-Star break included four bench players – Anthony Tolliver, James Ennis, Luke Kennard and Jameer Nelson. Boston’s bench got by far the better of the matchup, outscoring Van Gundy’s 65-21. Particularly effective for the Celtics were German rookie Daniel Theis, who easily topped his previous career best by scoring 19 points to go with 12 rebounds. Ex-Piston Marcus Morris finished with 15, Marcus Smart 12 and Terry Rozier 11 to give Boston four bench scorers in double figures. The odd men out for the Pistons were Eric Moreland in the frontcourt and Langston Galloway in the backcourt. Bypassing Moreland risks extended minutes for Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond. Griffin played 19 first-half minutes and 35 for the game and couldn’t get much to fall, finishing with 17 points on 5 of 19 shooting. Drummond finished with 15 points and 17 rebounds. Tolliver was first off the bench for Griffin, then Ennis replaced Stanley Johnson, followed by Nelson taking over for Ish Smith and, finally, Kennard replacing Reggie Bullock. The Boston game was the first of three games in four nights and six in the first nine days after the All-Star break.

– Ish Smith opened the game as the primary defender on Kyrie Irving and Smith played Irving mostly to a draw after Stan Van Gundy had always used somebody other than his point guard against him in the past, whether in Cleveland or Boston. Smith finished with 20 points and six assists, Irving with 18 points and six assists. It was Irving’s best game of the three the two teams have played this season – and the first in which he hasn’t been guarded by Avery Bradley. The Pistons replaced Tobias Harris’ 18 points a game with Blake Griffin’s 22 points a game, so it’s pretty easy to argue that the biggest void created by the trade is the absence of Bradley’s defense against top-flight guards. Van Gundy matched Bradley’s minutes against Irving in the first two Pistons-Celtics matchups and Bradley kept Irving contained to the tune of 34 total points on 10 of 28 shooting in the two matchups. Smith hit his first eight shots of the game.

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