Bradley, Drummond flex their muscles as Pistons drop preseason finale

Avery Bradley returned after a two-game absence and led the Pistons with 26 points in their loss at Milwaukee to wrap up the preseason
Gary Dineen (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

MILWAUKEE – There’s a laundry list of things that Stan Van Gundy didn’t have the opportunity to vet in an abbreviated preseason further complicated by minor injuries to four key players that prevented him from ever playing his expected starting five together.

But two forces that figure to be bedrocks of the Pistons season were on full display in the finale at Milwaukee, a 107-103 loss: Andre Drummond and Avery Bradley.

Drummond and Bradley, playing only their second game together, played like All-Stars. Bradley, returning after two games missed with a sprained ankle, scored 26 points in 30 minutes and hit 11 of 17 shots. Drummond, who missed two games with conjunctivitis, had 18 points, 22 boards and a team-best seven assists – two of them to Bradley on back cuts.

“Did a great job cutting,” said Reggie Jackson, who played with his new backcourt partner for the first time after missing the first two preseason games with a groin strain. “He really led us on offense today. He was getting to his mid-range, was cutting, then defensively he always does what he does. He had great pressure on the ball. Avery, obviously, looks like a great acquisition. He’s been outstanding for us.”

Van Gundy wants Drummond to become more of a hub for the offense this season, cutting down on extended jump hooks in favor of dribble handoffs and hard rolls to the rim. The Pistons got a taste of what that might look like in Milwaukee.

“Andre’s a very good passer,” Bradley said. “He sees the floor very well as a big and not only myself, but Stanley (Johnson, who sat out with a minor bout of back tightness), Reggie Bullock, even Tobias (Harris), I feel like a lot of people can have opportunities playing with him because he will give you the ball. If you might the right cut, he’ll make the right play.”

Van Gundy liked everything he saw from Bradley and Drummond; alas, that was about the start and end of his list.

“We really only had two guys play well,” he said. “Avery and Andre played well and that was about it. We need more than that.”

The Bucks – with extraordinary length in their starting lineup from Thon Maker to Giannis Antetokounmpo to Tony Snell to Khris Middleton – trap the ball as aggressively as any team. That got the ball out of Jackson’s hands and the Pistons simply did a less than stellar job attacking the pressure.

“They’re tough to score on. I thought we were tough to score on early, too, but when we move the ball we did some good things,” Van Gundy said. “When you try to play on the strong side of the floor against them and you try to play one-option basketball, you’re going to struggle and we had too many possessions of that.”

The offense perked up when Ish Smith entered and Van Gundy matched up with Milwaukee by employing a three-guard offense with Smith, Langston Galloway, Bradley and then Luke Kennard. But, as Van Gundy noted, the uptick in offense also coincided with Antetokounmpo resting and taking his chaos-inducing defense with him.

“That helps,” he said. “He took away two fast-break layups (with chase-down blocks) that are normally scores. Look, I’m not taking anything away from Ish. He picks up the speed, but I really think Antetokounmpo out of the game gives you a little better chance. He’s really tough defensively. He’s a good player offensively, too, but defensively he’s so impactful.”

Bradley is the Pistons counterpart as defensive stopper, but the Bucks hurt the Pistons most from the 3-point arc, finishing 16 of 33 and building a 13-point lead – that would become 18 – after three quarters with a 35-point third-quarter barrage. The Bucks were 15 of 28 from the arc through three quarters, but the Pistons rallied to tie late and had a chance to take the lead but Henry Ellenson missed a free throw with 41 seconds left and – after two Milwaukee free throws – also missed a runner with 15 seconds to play.

“The 3-point line just killed us,” Van Gundy said. “We’re struggling, number one, to get back and get matched up. And the ball’s just breaking us down on the dribble all the time and then they’re throwing the ball out and shooting threes. We’ve been outscored from the 3-point arc a lot in preseason and that’s been a real problem.”

The Pistons will take Saturday off after a week that included three games and four long practices, then have three days of practice before opening the regular season – and formally christening Little Caesars Arena – by hosting Charlotte on Wednesday. Ready or not, here it comes.

“Preseason’s over, so doesn’t really matter if we’re ready or not,” Jackson said. “We have to be come Wednesday. Games really start counting. It’s the first of 82.”

FAST BREAKDOWN

Three quick observations from Wednesday night’s 102-90 win over the Charlotte Hornets at Little Caesars Arena.

1-A NIGHT TO REMEMBER – They couldn’t lose that one, could they? Not the Little Caesars Arena christening. Nope, they couldn’t. The Pistons ushered in their shiny new home with a win over Charlotte – the same way they opened The Palace 29 years earlier. Tobias got the Pistons off and running with a 17-point first quarter and a corner triple early in the third quarter after Charlotte had pulled within six on three consecutive 3-point shots. Avery Bradley overcame foul trouble to add 15 on just 10 shots. Langston Galloway and Henry Ellenson combined for 29 points off the bench, needed punch due to the foul trouble and Stanley Johnson’s 0 for 13 shooting night – though Johnson was superb defensively. And he made a number of important plays, none bigger than his hustle pursuit of an offensive rebound that bought the Pistons another 24 seconds with Charlotte within eight points and about 1:20 left, resulting in a Harris triple to ice the win. Jackson finished with 13 points, eight assists, zero turnovers and five assists while making 5 of 10 shots in what was a most encouraging return to the starting lineup for him, logging 27 minutes.

2-MONKEY WRENCH – The Pistons got to halftime with an 11-point lead despite foul trouble that limited Andre Drummond to six minutes and Avery Bradley to seven, causing Stan Van Gundy to deviate from his substitution blueprint. Each picked up a second foul near the mid-point of the first quarter and a third shortly upon re-entering the game in the second quarter. Langston Galloway and Eric Moreland wound up playing heavier minutes than expected with Galloway scoring 13 of his 16 points in the first half to help overcome the loss of Bradley’s two-way contributions. The Pistons managed to keep Charlotte All-Star Kemba Walker under control despite Bradley’s absence, limiting him to five field-goal attempts and 10 first-half points. Jackson guarded Walker during the third quarter to protect Bradley, who checked Walker down the stretch and picked up just one second-half foul.

3-A TOUGH CALL – The inactive list produced a mild surprise: Anthony Tolliver. He was a casualty of unusual depth at his position, power forward, on a night the Pistons were shorthanded on the perimeter due to Reggie Bullock’s five-game suspension to start the season. Another factor that led Stan Van Gundy to make Tolliver inactive was the potential need he perceived to have both Boban Marjanovic and Eric Moreland available at center due to Dwight Howard’s presence and potential for inflicting foul trouble at the position. Plus, Charlotte has two other 7-footers in its rotation in Frank Kaminsky and Cody Zeller. So the fact it was a power forward that sat wasn’t an upset, but that it was Tolliver over 20-year-old Henry Ellenson registers as a mild surprise. Ellenson had a strong preseason, but Tolliver also played well – in more limited time because, Van Gundy said, he didn’t need to see much of Tolliver, a known quantity – and supplies surer 3-point shooting and steadier defense. Ellenson showed some of his moxie with five points in seven first-half minutes and finished with 13 points and four rebounds in 16 minutes, hitting both half his 10 shots and his four 3-point attempts.

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