Pistons 4th quarter rally comes up short as Johnson’s return lights a spark

Stanley Johnson returned after missing 8 of the last 9 games and sparked a fourth-quarter rally that came up short as the Pistons lost to Washington
Brian Sevald (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

DETROIT – It wasn’t the way the Pistons hoped to launch a critical stretch of home games that likely will be critical to their playoff chances, but the fourth quarter provided a ray of hope that they’ll be a different team when it ends.

The Pistons lost to Washington 122-112 to open a sequence of 10 of 11 games at Little Caesars Arena, but in whittling a 17-point deficit after three quarters to four with four minutes to play they saw the impact of Stanley Johnson on defense and Luke Kennard on offense.

“Luke Kennard is beyond his years as a rookie and Stanley is really starting to come into his own as a third-year player,” old man Andre Drummond, all of 24, said of his 21-year-old teammates. “Those are guys we’re going to continue to build around. Sky’s the limit.”

Kennard, playing over a left thumb injury that caused him to miss Wednesday’s loss at Toronto, scored all 16 of his points in the fourth quarter. Johnson, returning after missing the past three games and eight of the last nine with a strained hip flexor, scored five points but made his mark more at the defensive end, helping fuel the comeback with two steals converted into four points.

Johnson didn’t play in the first half, Stan Van Gundy reluctant to throw him back into the fray without having gone through so much as a practice since playing at Brooklyn nine days ago. But when Washington hung 45 points on the Pistons in the fourth quarter, taking a 20-point lead after being tied at halftime, the call became an easy one.

“Stanley’s a good defensive player,” he said. “I should’ve gone to him earlier in the third. The thought was we needed to get some stops and pick up our defensive intensity.”

Johnson’s triple with under eight minutes to go pulled the Pistons within seven. Washington pushed it back to 12, but Kennard’s scoring helped them get it back to four points. Washington simply had too much firepower from the 3-point arc with Kelly Oubre, Otto Porter and Bradley Beal combining to go 13 for 21 and John Wall hitting a back breaker off an offensive rebound after Johnson’s free throws produced the four-point deficit.

The Pistons, dogged by lousy starts of late, put together a superb first quarter and led 29-19. But Van Gundy’s second unit logged a dreadful three minutes to start the second quarter, committing four live-ball turnovers, and Washington pounced on the mistakes to score easy transition baskets and get back in the game. Then another rash of turnovers by the starters early in the third quarter ignited the 45-point Wizards third quarter in which Wall, after a scoreless first half, had 10 points and six assists.

“Terrible. Our guys coming off the bench to start the second quarter just were not ready for the pressure that their bench guys brought,” Van Gundy said. “The third quarter, I really don’t know what the problem was.”

So the combination of the 45-point third quarter and the shaky start to the second quarter prompted Van Gundy to tweak his bench unit. Langston Galloway replaced Dwight Buycks at point guard and that opened playing time for both Kennard, who’d spent more of his time lately at small forward, and Johnson.

Pretty good chance we’ll see them together again.

Bradley expected he and Johnson would form a dynamic 1-2 perimeter defensive punch when he was traded to the Pistons last summer and was thrilled to see him return from injury with such force.

“It was big. I felt like it was really big,” Bradley said. “Stanley came out playing with a lot of energy and that’s what we need from him.”

“He played really well, especially for a guy who hasn’t played in a while,” Tobias Harris said. “He let his defense fuel our energy. He did a really good job.”

Harris and Bradley both sat the entire fourth quarter, Van Gundy riding the group that led the turnabout.

“Coach made the right decision,” Bradley said. “Those guys got us back into the game.”

With Reggie Jackson likely sidelined another month, Van Gundy will give Kennard as much leash as he can handle to help produce desperately needed offense.

“Luke can make plays, so I just keep encouraging Luke to be as aggressive as he can be,” Van Gundy said. “He’s capable of making shots and making plays. He’s a skilled guy.”

“From the first day of training camp, he was making shots,” Harris said. “We know he can do that. It’s just a matter of him growing into his game and his confidence.”

It wasn’t what the Pistons hoped to get out of the night and their fourth straight loss dropped them to .500 for the first time since they opened the season 2-2. But the fourth-quarter comeback sparked by Stanley Johnson and Luke Kennard at least sent them home with reason to believe better outcomes are within their reach.

FAST BREAKDOWN

Three quick observations from Friday night’s 122-112 loss to the Washington Wizards at Little Caesars Arena

1-GAME OF RUNS – Especially costly turnovers early allowed Washington to get back in the game and especially good 3-point shooting by the Wizards kept the Pistons from coming back. Trailing by 20 late in the third quarter, the Pistons pulled within four with four minutes to play, sparked by the return of Stanley Johnson and the scoring of Luke Kennard. Johnson added some badly needed defense after Washington erupted for 45 points in the third quarter to snap a halftime tie, while Kennard scored all 16 of his points in the fourth quarter. But the Wizards got big 3-point baskets from Kelly Oubre, Bradley Beal and John Wall in the fourth quarter and made 16 of 35 for the game from the arc. Oubre finished with 26 points and hit 5 of 9 threes while Beal (26) and Otto Porter hit four apiece. The Pistons started off superbly – active on defense and crisp on offense – in running up a 29-14 lead. They led by 10 after the first quarter, but Stan Van Gundy’s second unit committed four turnovers in the first three minutes of the second quarter – the worst kind, live-ball turnovers that led to three Washington layups – and that got the Wizards back in the game. Then John Wall, who went scoreless in the first half, scored 10 points in the first four minutes of the third quarter as the Wizards broke a halftime tie to open a double-digit lead that quickly as three quick turnovers again helped fuel Washington’s burst. Andre Drummond finished with 14 points, 21 rebounds and eight assists, the latter tying a career high. Luke Kennard scored all 16 of his points in the fourth quarter, hitting 3 of 4 from the 3-point line and all five of his free throws. The Pistons, No. 3 in the NBA in 3-point shooting at 38.4 percent, shot 10 of 30 from the 3-point arc. Tobias Harris opened 4 for 4 and scored nine points in the first four minutes, but finished just 7 of 19 and didn’t play in the fourth quarter. The Pistons are 0-3 against the Wizards this season.

2-4 FOR 4 – Luke Kennard, Reggie Bullock, Stanley Johnson and Avery Bradley were all listed as questionable on the Pistons injury report and all four wound up available to Stan Van Gundy. Bullock and Bradley started as usual and Kennard was first off the bench. Johnson didn’t play in the first half – no doubt because Van Gundy was leery of playing him with virtually no practice time in the past few weeks – but started the fourth quarter at small forward, pushing Kennard to shooting guard as Langston Galloway played point guard over Dwight Buycks. Galloway was used behind Avery Bradley at shooting guard in the first half but the shaky showing of the second unit to open the second quarter with Buycks at point guard prompted a change. Kennard missed Wednesday’s game at Toronto with a thumb injury suffered in Monday’s loss to Charlotte; Bradley, who missed seven games last month with a pelvic injury, saw a specialist in Philadelphia on Thursday for the same injury; Bullock missed Friday’s shootaround with bronchitis; and Johnson had missed eight of the previous nine games with a strained hip flexor. Johnson had five points and two big steals in the fourth quarter.

3-SURGERY FOR LEUER – Jon Leuer pushed off a decision to have surgery on his injured left ankle for weeks even with doctors suggesting it probably was his surest path to recovery, but he relented and will undergo surgery next week to remove a bone fragment lodged in one of the ligaments that comprise the ankle joint. Leuer was one of two bench players, Ish Smith the other, that Stan Van Gundy knew would be in the rotation every night. He wound up playing most of his minutes over the season’s first eight games before suffering the injury Oct. 31 at center behind Andre Drummond, though Leuer was valued most for his defensive versatility. Leuer has two years remaining on the free-agent contract he signed with the Pistons in July 2016. Anthony Tolliver has assumed his spot behind Tobias Harris at power forward with Eric Moreland playing most backup center minutes behind Andre Drummond.

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