Harris’ sparkling debut can’t save Pistons in post-break loss at Washington

Tobias Harris had a strong Pistons debut with 21 points, but they were sluggish in their loss at Washington coming out of the All-Star break
Ned Dishman (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

WASHINGTON – Something happened with Stan Van Gundy’s business attire that prevented his appearance at the usual postgame press conference. That wasn’t the wardrobe malfunction that cost the Pistons their first game out of the All-Star break, though. It was all the dazzling passes John Wall and his buddies put together that left Pistons apparel strewn across the Verizon Center court.

“Wall’s a very, very good point guard in this league,” Pistons assistant Bob Beyer, pinch-hitting for Van Gundy, said after Washington’s 98-86 win dropped the Pistons to 27-28, their first dip below .500 since they were 8-9 on Nov. 29. “He’s aggressive, he’s quick, he got into the paint and he made a lot of great plays for them.”

If the Wizards hadn’t built a 22-point lead through three quarters and needed Wall for more than the seven fourth-quarter minutes he played, he might have registered a triple-double. As it was, his 22 points, eight boards and eight assists wreaked plenty of damage on a night the Pistons struggled for offense from anyone besides the guy who wasn’t on the team the last time they played.

Tobias Harris was really good, scoring 21 points on 9 of 12 shooting in 30 minutes off the bench. But it couldn’t make up for the 19 combined points the Pistons got from their starting small forward (Marcus Morris, nine), power forward (Anthony Tolliver, six) and shooting guard (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, four) on 7 of 29 shooting.

It was Caldwell-Pope’s first game since going out with a core muscle injury at Boston on Feb. 3 and he shot 1 of 11. His timing was clearly off, but everybody save Harris looked out of sync. Andre Drummond went 34 minutes and didn’t grab a single offensive rebound.

It was that kind of night. And the Pistons can’t afford many of them in the playoff chase. It’s not just the need to climb ahead of the teams in front of them – the Pistons began the night in the ninth spot and saw both Chicago and Charlotte win – but to fend off those charging from behind. Washington’s win lifted the Wizards to within a game of the Pistons and Orlando, an overtime winner over Dallas, is now only two back.

“Early in the season we were a team that, despite runs, we continued to fight,” Reggie Jackson said. “And now, sometimes, it just looks like we let it get to us and kind of let it pile up and then let an even longer run go instead of just continue to dig down and communicate with each other on defense and protect each other.”

The Pistons outscored Washington 25-15 in the fourth quarter and held the Wizards to 28 percent shooting, making the final numbers a little less telling of their defensive inefficiencies when it mattered most. Through three quarters, Washington had scored 83 points and shot 52 percent.

“Our pick-and-roll defense, you could start there,” Beyer said. “Our bigs were making the call for our coverages. We were a little bit late getting into the ball and they were allowed to just get over the top and play more in the middle of the floor. We want to keep it on the side as much as possible.”

The Pistons’ numbers were also a little deceiving. They finished at 42.7 percent, but were at 39.1 through three quarters. Take away Harris’ 9 of 12 and the rest of the team shot 37.1 for the game.

Harris flashed the diversity of his scoring arsenal, hitting a triple, a few mid-range shots, scoring in the post and off the dribble.

“I caught myself one time looking at the Jumbotron and see the (Pistons) jersey on and I was like, ‘Wow!’ I love playing basketball, so any time I’m playing the sport I have fun,” he said. “But seeing a couple of them go down, seeing my teammates encourage me, that only helped.”

“Aggressive,” Jackson said of Harris, who played 30 minutes, coming off the bench for Anthony Tolliver midway through both the first and third quarters but playing a little at both forward spots. “Talked to him before the game about coming out and being yourself and I think he did that. I think he’s picked it up pretty quickly. Everybody got a chance to see how he helps open up the floor. When we get stops, he runs hard every time. He’s looking to get out and really push the pace.”

Beyer was Harris’ hands-on coach for the crash course he got in Thursday’s practice to learn enough of the responsibilities at both small forward and power forward to get by.

“I thought he played really well,” Beyer said. “That’s a tough situation for a guy coming in on a trade and having one full practice like that. He’s an extremely intelligent basketball player. He actually learned two positions in one day and he played both the three and the four. He was very effective offensively and I thought he did a really, really nice job out there tonight.”

But it wasn’t a win. And the Pistons don’t have the luxury of time to knock off their rust or ease into the acclimation process for Harris and the two other newcomers – Donatas Motiejunas and Marcus Thornton, acquired Thursday from Houston, weren’t available pending their physical exams – with just 27 games remaining.

“We’ve just got to use a little more common sense and just protect each other and use savvy within the game, especially on the defensive end,” Jackson said. “Protect each other and take care of each other and we’ve got to figure it out on the fly.”

FAST BREAKDOWN

Three quick observations from Friday’s 98-86 loss to the Washington Wizards

SLAM DUNK – It wasn’t Tobias Harris who looked uncomfortable in his Pistons debut, it was everybody else. Harris was superb, scoring 21 points on 9 of 12 shooting, but the Pistons looked disjointed and ultimately dispirited as Washington – which got a big win under its belt on Thursday by dumping Utah out of the All-Star break – kept them on their heels defensively with terrific ball movement and shooting. Washington went on an early 15-4 run to take a 15-point lead. It got to 16 before the Pistons pulled within five late in the second quarter, but another 9-0 Washington run put the Wizards ahead by 15 at halftime. The lead grew to 22 by the end of the third quarter. The Pistons shot under 40 percent for much of the game after starting 1 of 11 and finished at .427 with as many turnovers (13) as assists, while Washington shot .462 after being above 50 for much of the gameand drew assists on 26 of its 36 baskets. Harris, who came on at the midway point of both the first and third quarters, showed off his scoring versatility with outside shots, pull-up jump shots off the dribble and post-up scores when drawing a smaller defender. He didn’t get much scoring help, though, as the Pistons had just two other players in double figures: Reggie Jackson with 16 points and Andre Drummond with 11.

FREE THROW – Kentavious Caldwell-Pope returned to the lineup after missing the previous four games with a core muscle strain suffered at Boston on Feb. 3, but he didn’t resemble the player who averaged 16.7 points a game in January, the best scoring month of his career. Caldwell-Pope missed his first seven shots, finally getting on the board with two free throws midway through the third quarter and finishing with four points on 1 of 11 shooting in 32 minutes. He played 17 first-half minutes and went 0 for 5 without a steal, assist or free-throw attempt. He looked very much like a guy who hadn’t played a game in more than two weeks. Stan Van Gundy resumed his practice of using Caldwell-Pope to guard the most dynamic backcourt starter for the opposition, John Wall in this case, to start the game., though wound up using Caldwell-Pope on Bradley Beal when he came off Washington’s bench and got rolling. Wall finished with 22 points, eight rebounds and eight assists and Beal with 17 points on 7 of 10 shooting.

3-POINTER – One of the outcomes of the Pistons certainly becoming more versatile and probably deeper with their two trade-deadline deals that added Tobias Harris, Donatas Motiejunas and Marcus Thornton is a lessening of the minutes load on Marcus Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. With Harris available to play both forward spots, Van Gundy’s increased confidence in rookie Stanley Johnson and Thornton’s availability at shooting guard, as well, Van Gundy is hoping to reduce the workload of the two players who’ve consistently ranked among the top six players in the league in minutes per game. Caldwell-Pope entered Friday’s game third at 36.8 and Morris sixth at 36.2. “I’d like to eventually get those guys down to a more reasonable minutes thing. We’ve got a little less than eight weeks to go and we’ve got nine back to backs in this stretch,” Van Gundy said. “I’d like to get their minutes down a little bit.” Caldwell-Pope played 32 minutes, Morris 36.

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