Pachulia gives Pistons punch as his return boosts OT win over Orlando
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DETROIT – There aren’t must-win games on the NBA calendar until March, maybe April. But there are games you better not lose, at least, and the Pistons just played one that fit that profile.
They’ll get another one next, too.
In an Eastern Conference where five playoff spots are as good as claimed unless calamity strikes and six teams – the Pistons among them – began the night grouped between 18 and 22 wins, any game against another from the group of six counts double.
And you really can’t afford to drop those games at home. So after beating Orlando 120-115 in overtime on Wednesday, the Pistons would do well to chalk up another win Friday when Miami, 21-21, visits Little Caesars Arena.
“I think we’re in a good position. Even though we’d like to be in the top eight, we’re not that far from six,” Zaza Pachulia said. “We can’t take any game for granted. Most important game is next game, Miami, who is ahead of us.”
That Pachulia was surrounded by reporters after the win was significant in that his return from injury marked the first intact rotation Dwane Casey has had since early October. Ish Smith returned from a 19-game absence in Monday’s finale of a four-game road trip and Pachulia’s return came after missing the last eight games.
His presence was unmistakable with a second unit that suffered for his loss. The opening minutes of second and fourth quarters have been often disastrous since Pachulia went down on Dec. 30 with a calf injury.
This time, the Pistons trailed by eight points when Pachulia entered to start the second quarter and they were tied when Andre Drummond replaced him less than eight minutes later. Pachulia finished plus-16 in his 15 minutes.
“Huge. He’s our anchor down there with that second unit,” Blake Griffin said. “Passing, rebounding, just doing the little things – the things that don’t really get noticed. He’s been great about that all year. I think this is the first time in I don’t know how many games where we had everybody healthy, which is huge. Hopefully, we can keep it that way.”
Griffin thought the Pistons were “visibly a little tired” after getting back from Utah and their weeklong trip late Tuesday afternoon. He started slowly, scoring six points while playing the entire first quarter, but finishing strong. Eighteen of Griffin’s 30 points came in the second half, including the game’s last seven after Orlando took a 115-113 overtime lead on two Terrence Ross 3-pointers 21 seconds apart.
Those baskets represented all of Orlando’s overtime scoring, though, as the Pistons – who gave up 63 first-half points, 30 in the paint, on 67.5 percent shooting – strung together seven straight defensive stops to finish the game.
“We got some stops and executed,” Griffin said. “We just closed it out. Defensively, we were getting stops, forcing them to take the shots that we wanted and getting rebounds.”
Drummond wound up getting 22 of them, 11 on each end. Five starters besides Griffin finished in double figures, each with either 13 (Reggie Bullock, Reggie Jackson, Langston Galloway) or 14 (Drummond, Luke Kennard) points. Ross’ 3-point shooting – he was 6 of 12 and finished with 24 points – off the bench kept Orlando in it.
“He’s a handful,” said Casey, who coached Ross in Toronto. “You come off those screens, you better have two bodies in front of him. We did a better job of making sure we were connected to him because if he gets loose, you’re dead.”
Casey saw something on the West Coast trip – first in the win over the Clippers, then in the loss at Utah – that encourages him with regard to growth in consistency of focus and toughness. Getting Pachulia back, he expects, will help bond those qualities with improved basketball IQ.
“Couldn’t get him back quick enough,” he said. “He’s just a smart player. You can have all the toughness and play hard – because I thought we played hard in Utah – but you’ve got to put IQ with it. That’s what we’ve got to do and that’s what Zaza brings to the table.”