DETROIT – The Charlotte team that opened the second half of the season was the one that prompted most to pencil the Hornets into the playoffs three months ago when they opened the season at Little Caesars Arena.
The Pistons won the Oct. 18 debut in their shiny new home and hoped to use Game 42 – the first game of the second 41-game segment – to launch a playoff push with 14 of their next 17 games at home after playing 23 of the first 41 on the road.
Instead, they got “crushed” – Stan Van Gundy’s word – in a 118-107 loss in which the Hornets hammered them with 3-point shots in the first half and Kemba Walker’s slithering drives around Dwight Howard screens in the second.
“We’ve been playing against a lot of teams that use the pick and roll,” said Tobias Harris, who over the last two games has been matched up against the likes of Chicago’s Laurie Markkanen and Nikola Mirotic and Charlotte’s Marvin Williams and Frank Kaminsky, all exemplifying the modern NBA with its fleet of range-shooting power forwards.
“You’ve got to pull in to the big (and) get out, but it’s on the fours – on me, on everybody that plays the four position, to run those guys, close out to them. It’s the toughest part of the game, but it’s something that we have to do a better job of and it starts with me, too.”
Markkanen and Mirotic had four triples apiece in Saturday’s loss to Chicago and Williams hit 5 of 6 in Monday’s defeat.
“A lot of it today was, close out,” Van Gundy said. “Like, close out – and close out hard. It’s going to take a lot more effort than what we’re putting in to it.”
Maybe it was Pistons defenders cheating a half-step to the 3-point line after a first half in which Charlotte hit 7 of 11 triples or maybe it was just Walker deciding to turn up the heat, but after a quiet first half – he had three points on 1 of 5 shooting against Avery Bradley – Walker’s penetration was the dominant theme of the second half. He finished with 20 points, hitting 8 of 13 second-half shots, plus nine assists.
“Kemba, in a way, just picked us apart,” Bradley said. “He made simple plays. Got the ball to Dwight in the middle of the key and they kind of picked us apart.”
Howard got the better of his matchup with Andre Drummond, too, going for 21 points, 17 rebounds and four blocked shots to Drummond’s three points, 10 boards and one block. Drummond also wasn’t the force he’s been in suffocating the pick and roll.
“It wasn’t just him. It was everybody,” Van Gundy said. “I’m not going to single anybody out. We played nine guys today; not one of them defended – not one.”
And that was the thread that ran through the game for Van Gundy and, beyond this game, the thread that’s run through the 3-6 record in games since the Pistons lost Reggie Jackson to injury on Dec. 26.
“So we’re three and six since Reggie’s gone down and we’ve defended in three games – the three we’ve won,” Van Gundy said. “The other six … look at the numbers. We haven’t guarded.”
He didn’t get any pushback in the locker room.
“It’s something we’ve been saying the last few games,” Bradley said. “We saw the writing on the wall. If we’re not going to defend, we’re not going to win games on a consistent basis. That has to be our identity. That has to be our mindset going into every game.”
Even with Monday’s 118 points allowed on 51 percent shooting from Charlotte, the Pistons remain the NBA’s No. 10 defensive team. The focus might be a little too inconsistent for Van Gundy’s – or anyone in his locker room – liking, but it’s not like the Pistons haven’t proven over time to be an above-average defensive team even as they’ve grappled with the disruptive influence of injuries.
But especially while Jackson is idled, Van Gundy knows the sense of urgency to defend more responsibly and passionately for 48 minutes is imperative.
“I told (the Pistons) exactly what I told you – if we continue to defend like this, then we’re going to lose,” he said. “It’s plain and simple. We’re going to lose. You’re going to defend a lot harder or you’re going to keep losing.”