Pistons feeling A-OK with D.J. Augustin as a Plan B
Gary Dineen (NBAE/Getty)
Tom Thibodeau credited D.J. Augustin with "saving our season" last year in Chicago, when the Bulls picked Augustin off the street and turned their offense over to him after losing Derrick Rose to his second season-ending knee injury. To a large extent because of Augustin's success in Thibodeau's structured offense, he appealed to Van Gundy when the point guard market cooled last summer and Augustin unexpectedly fell into Detroit's price range after more pressing needs were filled.
Now Augustin gets his shot to save a Pistons season that seemed doomed at 5-23 but was revived by a 12-3 run sparked by the sizzling play of the player he backed up, Brandon Jennings.
It sure wasn't on Augustin that the Pistons lost his debut as the No. 1 point guard for the foreseeable future. Van Gundy lamented Detroit's defense after the 114-110 loss at Toronto on Sunday, but Augustin's offense – 35 points, eight assists and only two turnovers in 37 grinding minutes – was sublime. When Toronto started the game scoring in bunches, Augustin didn't wait for the game to come to him – he went hunting the game.
"I'm going to continue to try to attack and be aggressive and find my teammates, too," Augustin said after the game. "That's what coach wants me to do."
It must have given Augustin a little extra satisfaction to turn in that performance in Toronto, which cut him in the fall of 2013 when the Raptors needed to clear roster spots following the trade that sent Rudy Gay to Sacramento and took back multiple pieces, including guard Greivis Vasquez. That's when Chicago swooped in and signed Augustin. He came off the bench mostly for the Bulls, starting 9 of 61 games, but played starter's minutes – 30 a game, averaging 14.9 points and 5.0 assists while shooting .411 from the 3-point line. When the game was on the line, Augustin was in the thick of it.
The Pistons had no quibbles with what Augustin gave them as Jennings' backup. In fact, when Augustin had it rolling with the second unit – as he did in road wins over the past month over Orlando and Dallas, with Jennings leading cheers from the bench – Van Gundy often let him finish games.
Coming into Sunday's game, he'd averaged 8.4 points and 4.2 assists in 21 minutes a game. But the one area of his game that had dropped off was 3-point shooting. A career 37 percent deep shooter, Augustin's low-water mark came in his third season when he hit 33 percent for Charlotte. With the Pistons, he'd hit 28 percent before Sunday.
So his 5 of 9 outing against Toronto – the most triples he's made in a game for the Pistons, topping the 4 of 5 he hit on Jan. 7 when his 26 points led to the Dallas win – was encouraging for Augustin and the Pistons. His 3-point attempts rate per 36 minutes was 6.2 a season ago, 4.2 with the Pistons. While 46.2 percent of Augustin shot attempts with the Bulls were 3-pointers, just 33.8 percent of his shots this season have been triples. He expects that to change with an expanded role.
"Being out there more minutes and in the starting lineup, you get more shots," Augustin said. "I think being in the starting lineup, I will get more open threes and I'm going to continue to try to take them and just keep trying to get better."
Van Gundy still expects Augustin's accuracy to tick up to career levels.
"I would expect him to at some point, regardless of the minutes," Van Gundy said. "I think that guys go through whatever they go through, but generally they come back to why they are. I do think he knows he's going to get more minutes and there's not that pressure that, 'I've got to get on a run to stay in the game. I'm probably going to play.' That can produce some confidence, so hopefully he'll shoot the ball a little better."
The Pistons also need Spencer Dinwiddie's contributions if they're going to challenge for an Eastern Conference playoff spot. Dinwiddie looked a little wide-eyed in Sunday's first half, but appeared more comfortable when he came back for a five-minute second-half stint.
He said his stints in the D-League at least gave him some recent game experience to make his transition to the rotation a little less overwhelming. He acknowledged that he was whipsawed by a swirl of emotions in the aftermath of the Jennings injury.
"I think the phrase 'are you ready?' has been used," said Dinwiddie, who in January 2014 tore his ACL, ending his junior season at Colorado. "I've been asked multiple times by pretty much everybody in the locker room. My phone, from a positive and negative standpoint, blew up when (Jennings' injury) happened, friends and family.
"It's definitely a laundry list of emotions. B.J. obviously was a really good vet and one of my friends and to see him go down, you feel sad. And then from my perspective, basically a year ago to the day I had a similar type of thing happen. I thought about my team back at Colorado. Anybody's happy to play; you just don't ever want it to happen like that."
The Pistons used Augustin for 37 minutes against Toronto, a load he said he's prepared to handle.
"I feel like I'm in good shape," he said. "Whatever coach needs me to do – if he needs me to play 40 or 20 or whatever he needs. I'm going to go out there and bust my butt to do it."
Augustin sees Dinwiddie becoming more confident, as well, as his role comes into focus.
"I think he'll do well. Spence is a big guard. He played great defense on Vasquez and I think he's going to get more comfortable the more he plays. That's any player."
The Pistons are likely to sign a third point guard soon, Van Gundy said Sunday, but salvaging what suddenly had become a promising season likely rests in the hands of D.J. Augustin. Based on both early returns and Augustin's history, that's about as good as Plan B gets.