Pistons go-to guy changes by the minute – and Brandon Jennings is becoming the one to decide who it will be
Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)
It shouldn't be necessary to remind Pistons fans, of all people, of the virtues and possibilities of a lineup that doesn't include the proverbial go-to superstar. The 2004 Pistons won an NBA championship that way, after all.
But memories are short and the Pistons haven't done enough winning in the interim to keep the message alive. A decade-plus later, though, Stan Van Gundy's version of the Pistons is striking a similar pose.
Consider: They won at Toronto on Monday – their ninth win in 10 games and their sixth straight on the road – by getting 19 of their 32 fourth-quarter points from two players who some nights won't be on the floor at all during crunch time. Jodie Meeks scored 11 points in the quarter, Jonas Jerebko eight.
"I think that's the best thing about us," said Brandon Jennings, who led the comeback from 14 points down with a 34-point, 10-assist night. But when Toronto started doubling him to get the ball out of his hands in the fourth quarter, he found teammates he trusted to do positive things with it. "Everybody can do something. And now that everybody has the opportunity, it just helps everybody's confidence in the late game. So even if you haven't had the ball, you know you're going to get a chance for it and you just do your thing with it when you get it."
Andre Drummond, who wasn't on the floor for the last six-plus minutes as Greg Monroe finished with Jerebko, Meeks, Jennings and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, echoes Jennings.
"I think we've done a better job of really just working with what we have," he said. "We know we don't have a LeBron James, we don't have a Kevin Durant. Any one of our guys can go for 20 on any given night. That's how good of a team we are – anybody can do it. One night, it'll be Jonas; one night, it'll be me; one night, it'll be Brandon. You can go down the list of guys."
One common theme – a simplification, really – since the waiving of Josh Smith on Dec. 22 with the Pistons at 5-23 has been concentrating the ball in the hands of the point guard, Jennings and D.J. Augustin. Jennings has rewarded Van Gundy's faith in him tenfold by playing with consistent efficiency. While his 34 points were splashy – and absolutely essential to the win – they weren't any more important than his mere two turnovers in 34 minutes.
"No question," Van Gundy said. "Ten assists, two turnovers – outstanding. For as much as he's had the ball in his hands, limiting himself to two turnovers last night is – probably, in a lot of ways – more impressive than the 34 points. That game was won because of that. The fact he did a great job of taking care of the ball was a huge factor in that game."
There's a reason why Jennings has committed just 2.6 turnovers per 36 minutes this season, a rate that puts him well above – or below, if you will – more heralded point guards like Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, John Wall and Steph Curry, to name just a few.
"I just hate turning the ball over," he said, emphasis on "hate." "Turnovers just really irk me. Like, it really upsets me. Not being able to get a good shot on a possession just really (ticks) me off. That's my main thing – just taking care of the ball and always making the right plays."
He's making them at an All-Star rate over the 9-1 stretch: 20.4 points, 7.1 assists and 1.6 turnovers a game while shooting .470 overall and .422 from the 3-point line.
"Brandon has been outstanding," Drummond said. "Just give him the keys. Let him drive. Brandon is a great player and he makes all of our decisions. He wants to be great and he's willing to be a great point guard. The fact that Stan gave him that opportunity to be a leader is really showing on the court."
It sounds a little crazy, but entrusting Jennings with greater responsibility has somehow unburdened him. When much of the offense ran through Smith to exploit his rare playmaking ability for his position, Jennings' opportunities were limited, putting more urgency on each possession under his control. Now he knows it's his ship, possession after possession.
"I don't want to say I take plays off, but give other guys a chance out there," he said. "Jonas hit some big shots last night, Jodie, also Greg (Monroe). Everybody's making plays and everybody's contributing."
The book on Jennings from early in his career was not knowing when to rein it in, how to straddle the line between playing aggressively and veering into recklessness. For all but the rarest prodigies, it's something that can only come with experience. As a sixth-year player, though still just 25, Jennings has put the results of his maturation on full display over the past three weeks.
"If you look at all the teams that are hot, all their guards are always on the attack," he said, ticking off his peers: Jeff Teague, Curry, Kyle Lowry, Wall. "All of them are just attacking and putting so much pressure on a defense, so I think now, with me having the ball, that's my main thing – just putting so much pressure on every time I have the ball, not just to shoot but to make plays and make the defenses scramble."
He's had them scrambling for 10 games, in the opposing coaches' scouting sessions and on the court. As Drummond said, defenses must "pick your poison. You want three or do you want to get dunked on?" Jennings is making sure all options for the opponent are unsavory these days. The Pistons might not have a go-to guy, but Brandon Jennings is becoming the guy who far more often than not decides smartly where to go and who among his teammates is best equipped to take them there.