‘Exceptional’ second-half D carries Pistons past Orlando

DETROIT – This time, the coach left to agonize about his team allowing the opposition to dictate terms to his offense wasn’t Dwane Casey.

“They’re good defensively and they were aggressive with their coverages,” Orlando’s Steve Clifford said after the Pistons played stifling defense – nothing else to call it when you limit a team to 33 second-half points and 28 percent shooting – to fuel a 103-88 win.

“Our troubles come more with overdribbles, looking off the teammate who’s right beside you and trying to make a better play and that’s not our team. The ball has got to move and when the ball moves and it moves freely, we can play good offense.”

Any NBA team can embarrass you and send the scoreboard spinning if your defense isn’t organized and motivated. To make a collection of players drawn from a pool of the world’s best look as inept as the Pistons made Orlando look for the final 24 minutes Monday night takes large dollops of effort and focus and willpower.

“I think our defense was exceptional in the second half,” Casey said as the Pistons won their second straight home game. “Any time you have dynamic players like (Terrance) Ross and (Evan) Fournier, your attention to detail has to be there. Everybody has to be in the right place. I thought we did a much better job in the second half. Our defense is taking steps in the right direction.”

It had to because the Pistons got seven points from Andre Drummond and two from Derrick Rose. Blake Griffin scored 17 and again showed flashes that he’s putting the impact of his spring knee injury and subsequent surgery behind him, but the Pistons can’t lean on him to make a play on every possession for 35 minutes as they did all of last season just yet.

So the formula for winning had to be great defense and across-the-board contributions from role players. They got both. Luke Kennard gave them 20 points and seven assists in 34 understatedly superb minutes and four others – Bruce Brown, Langston Galloway, Svi Mykhailiuk and Christian Wood – scored 12 or 13 points.

Mykhailiuk’s contributions might have been the most significant, both for the short-term impact on the win and the long-term implications for what he could mean. There are strong parallels between Mykhailiuk and Kennard’s skill sets – the deep shooting, the ballhandling and playmaking potential. Lapses in other areas have limited Mykhailiuk’s playing time, but especially while Tony Snell is out – he missed his fourth straight game with a hip injury – Mykhailiuk is getting a shot to carve out a more permanent role.

“I feel a lot more comfortable,” Mykhailiuk said after playing 22 minutes, hitting 4 of 8 from the 3-point arc. “When people play basketball, play games, you get more adjusted to the game and to the rhythm of the game. When you know Coach trusts you, it relaxes you and gives you more freedom on the court.”

In addition to the 3-point punch, Mykhailiuk made hustle plays – chasing down an offensive rebound, causing a turnover and saving the ball from going out of bounds, taking a charge – that will earn him more minutes.

It was the charge – on a call overturned when Casey challenged the original call of a block on Mykhailiuk – that was as big as any play, coming with six minutes left and the Pistons ahead by 14 after Mykhailiuk had just drained a triple at the other end.

There wasn’t any comeback left in Orlando after that play.

“I thought we did a good job,” Griffin said of the collective defensive effort. “We made mistakes here and there, but that’s to be expected. What we did is executed our game plan defensively from start to finish, for the most part. We let Terrance Ross get loose a little bit in the second quarter, but I thought we did a really good job of helping each other out and locking in and executing.”

The Pistons held Atlanta and Milwaukee well under their averages in splitting a weekend back to back and smothered Orlando. While fans awaited Griffin’s return for the 24 points a game he scored last season, Casey – yeah, he coveted that scoring, too – wanted him for more than that, including his impact on defensive communication.

“Our communication has gotten a lot better,” Griffin said. “Still, at times, we don’t do a great job of communicating with each other, but usually when we’re on one of our better stretches defensively the communication is high.”

The Pistons have hung in there offensively largely on the strength of their 3-point shooting this season, but there’s another level they’ll get to when Griffin and Rose are fully in the flow after cautious off-seasons and injuries threw them off schedule. But they’ll always need to be at least solid defensively to start gaining traction in the Eastern Conference standings.

Monday’s second half was the most encouraging development yet for their chances to check that off their to-do list.