Mad? Nah, but Kennard finds his groove and Pistons reap the benefit
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DETROIT – If you doubt that anger could hold up over time as a motivating force, then you’ll be cheered to know that Luke Kennard swears he’s not mad at anyone.
“Whether he’s mad at me, I don’t care. I hope he is,” Dwane Casey said after Kennard’s 19-point outing in Monday’s win over Indiana, the seventh in eight games for the Pistons. “He’s playing with a chip on his shoulder and that’s great. That’s the way he has to play – be mad, play mad.”
Over his last six games, Kennard is averaging 13.5 points and shooting 49.1 percent overall and an even more impressive 53.1 percent from the 3-point line on 5.3 attempts. He’ll admit to the “chip” part, but not to how it got there.
“I’m not mad at all,” he said when told of his coach’s appraisal. Becoming a more assertive scorer and decision-maker is something Kennard’s been encouraged to do under two coaching regimes with the Pistons. That’s easier said than done for a young player still feeling his way, figuring out what works in the NBA and what doesn’t translate from college basketball. The game is, perhaps, slowing down just enough for Kennard to slide over to the passing lane.
“A little bit,” he said. “It’s just my mentality of staying aggressive, trying to make plays.”
The other half of it, Kennard says, is his surroundings. Blake Griffin calls it the Pistons “playing with the right spirit” and making the right plays. That’s a recipe more conducive to bringing out the best in Kennard, who isn’t as likely to prosper as an isolation scorer.
“With the way we’ve been playing, our pace, it opens the floor up for guys,” he said. “We’ve got guys who can make the right plays for each other, which is great. We’re playing great basketball, fun basketball and everybody’s connected right now.”
Kennard started at Boston in the final game before the All-Star break, but returned to the bench coming out of it with Wayne Ellington sliding into the spot vacated by Reggie Bullock in the trade-deadline deal with the Lakers. That was less a reflection on Kennard or Casey’s faith in him than the fit for Ellington – similar to Bullock in style – with Griffin and the starting unit in addition to Casey’s desire to maintain stability with the second unit.
But the Kennard of late is every bit as likely to finish games, as he did in Monday’s win, as Ellington or Bruce Brown, Casey’s defensive stopper. Griffin, as perceptive as he is effective, senses the recent growth in Kennard’s confidence.
“I told him last game (in Kennard’s 17-point outing at Miami), I love when he comes off the court and he’s got that look in his eye like, ‘Nobody can stop me,’ ” Griffin said. “Because when he’s playing like that, it’s kind of ‘pick your poison.’ He’s coming down, pulling a quick three or pump fake, get to the rim, pump fake-pump fake-spin – whatever it is. He’s got it all, so when he plays like that he’s dangerous for us.”
Casey’s handling of Kennard is as he was advertised coming from Toronto, where a trove of young players outperformed their draft slots under his tutelage. It’s a potent mixture of unrelenting positivity and tough love.
“He’s always challenging us to be better,” Kennard said. “He’s gotten on me before for playing lazy, not being ready, not being in a stance, little things – but big things in the big picture. He’s great, talking to me, being positive but also being on me when he needs to be. He’s been hard on me, which is good. I love it.”
While Kennard’s uptick in play is reflected in his scoring and shooting numbers, Casey sees it just as much on the defensive end. In Saturday’s second-half dominance over Miami, Kennard spent most of his time guarding Hall of Famer in waiting Dwyane Wade and twice forced him into turnovers. He picked up another strip in Monday’s late rally to pull away from the Pacers.
“Toughness is one thing I’m proud of Luke for doing,” Casey said. “When he does that – when he plays with a toughness offensively and defensively, guys trying to go at him, so play with that edge, play with that toughness, that screw-you attitude. That helps him. Whoever he has to get upset with, go ahead. We’ll line people up to do that. But he’s playing with that edge and that’s helped him a lot, I think.”