As Pistons adapt to life minus Reggie, the race is to adjust as quickly as possible
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ORLANDO – Life without Reggie Jackson won’t be easy. The Pistons were never under the illusion it would be. But it shouldn’t be as hard as they made it look the first time around, either.
The Pistons were held to 89 points by the NBA’s 24th-ranked defense in their first game since losing Jackson to a grade 3 ankle sprain, which is to ankle sprains what category 5 is to hurricanes – the worst.
But don’t extrapolate too much from Jackson’s injury to one desultory performance. The Pistons have had fewer laid eggs than the average NBA team this season. You can point to road losses to the Lakers and Mavericks (which doesn’t look as bad since Dallas beat Toronto soundly a few nights later and then won at Indiana) and Thursday’s Orlando outing and that’s it, really.
Everybody has those losses. Cleveland and San Antonio both got blasted by Orlando this season. Washington, 2-0 against the Pistons and a team most had pegged to be a top-four seed in the East, is 10-6 against teams with winning records but 9-10 against losing teams.
The Pistons lose some of their margin for error with Jackson’s injury, to be sure. No one would soft peddle that. But coaches never see black and white. There was a laundry list of reasons the Pistons lost to Orlando. Stan Van Gundy would tell the biggest one was the six inches between the ears.
“I thought their disposition to begin the game was awful,” he said.
Ish Smith, Jackson’s stand-in as the starter, started slowly, thinking more about the weight of his new role than about being Ish Smith, waterbug, spark plug. Otis Smith, Van Gundy’s once-GM in Orlando and current trusted assistant, set him straight.
“It was more of a feel like trying to figure it out and Otis talked to me,” Smith said. “He was like, ‘Ish, what are you doing? Play!’ And when he told me that, that’s what kind of woke me up and it worked out.”
The Pistons will take the aggregate contribution Smith provided every time – and it’ll be 30 games, perhaps as a best-case scenario, for Jackson to recuperate – with his 18 points, five assists against one turnover, and seven rebounds on 50 percent shooting in 32 working-class minutes.
What they need is some modicum of efficiency when he sits. They didn’t get that Thursday, outscored by 13 points – the final margin – in the 16 minutes Smith sat. The Pistons led by a point when he went to the bench with three minutes left in the third quarter but trailed by 13 when he was hurriedly summoned back five minutes later.
But that’s not all on Langston Galloway. Yeah, he had a miserable game and put the target squarely on his back.
“I’ve definitely got to take responsibility for that one,” Galloway said. “You don’t want to go that way to start the fourth. You want to get the team rolling and really get a good rhythm.”
Galloway’s calling card is his shooting. Van Gundy tried to play to his strengths, even with Galloway as the point guard. He wasn’t running a bunch of pick and rolls with Galloway, but using him to get the ball over half-court and trigger a motion offense. He just missed shots – 8 of 9.
“I think it’s just one of those nights,” he shrugged. “We got some great looks and just didn’t fall tonight. Just got to get back in the gym tomorrow and get back after it.”
He was hardly alone. The bench missed 19 of their 22 shots, an aberrant number but also a reflection of the hit to their depth. Jackson isn’t the only key player missing. Avery Bradley has been out for six games, Jon Leuer for 26. So when Galloway and Anthony Tolliver both are misfiring and Stanley Johnson bumps along at 2 of 8, there aren’t a lot of other places to turn with Van Gundy’s sick bay short of beds.
Van Gundy said before Thursday’s game that while Smith was as an easy call to start for Jackson, backup point guard was a little more fluid. They like Dwight Buycks, too, for his ability to penetrate and score. And using Buycks at point guard frees Galloway to play a role more suited to him.
“He’s a tough kid and he can penetrate the ball and score and I think he’s got some grit to him,” Van Gundy said. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see Dwight, but Langston’ll be the first guy you see.”
He isn’t about to scuttle the plan based on the sample size of one game amid a sea of 82. He won’t let it linger for long, should it show no signs of reversing, but he understands – as much as it gnaws at him – that a traumatic event like Jackson’s injury sets off a domino effect of adjustments up and down the roster.
“I think it’s an adjustment for all of us. Totally honest with you,” Smith said. “When you lose somebody like Reggie, it’s ‘next man up’ – and it is. But it’s still an adjustment. What he brought to our team was huge. It’s still an adjustment. Everybody playing different roles, different minutes, different situations, defense they might be playing and shots they might be getting. Once we get in that flow and that rhythm, I think we’ll be OK. But it’s definitely at adjustment.”
And while it would have been nice if the sum of those adjustments caused no dislocation, nobody really expected it. The race is to make it happen before too much damage is inflicted on their record.