Pistons make series of big plays in final 23 seconds, find a way to win home opener

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope made two big free throws and his blocked shot prevented Utah from getting off a potential game-tying triple in the final seconds
Gregory Shamus (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

There were no exclamation points or cheesy rallying cries on Stan Van Gundy’s whiteboard at the head of the Pistons locker room after Wednesday’s home opener, a pulsating 92-87 slugfest of a win. Instead there were only two numbers, one atop the other.

.385

.405

They represented his team’s shooting percentages from their first two games, and 9 out of 10 times such numbers get you beat.

But the Pistons are 2-0 – first time in seven years they can say that, which perhaps not coincidentally was the last time they made the playoffs – and they owe it to what their coach sees as a growing collective fight.

“They’re both satisfying,” Van Gundy said of the two wins. “I mean, to get it on the back to back, to do it at home, was good. As I put it on the board for our guys. I think the promising thing is in the two wins we shot 38 percent and 40 percent. It’s not like we’re lighting it up. Our offense has got a long way to go.

“But I’d rather be trying to figure that out and dealing with that problem than talking about, ‘We’re not competing hard enough.’ I like the character our guys have shown. I like the fight. I like the attitude we’ve had in games – even when things haven’t gone well.”

And things weren’t going well – right after they were – when the Pistons showed a winning combination of their newfound confidence, toughness and esprit de corps Van Gundy has preached since training camp’s first day.

Reggie Jackson’s 3-pointer with 3:32 to play put them up six on a night six felt like 16. But the Pistons then went five straight fruitless possessions where it looked like they were coming a little unraveled.

“They were terrible,” Van Gundy agreed.

Utah went ahead with 23 seconds left on a strong drive by Gordon Hayward, Van Gundy calling timeout afterward.

“Down the stretch, I want the ball to make decisions,” Jackson said. “I didn’t make great ones, necessarily, getting us to the point where we were up six, and they got back up by one. But I knew going into the timeout I wanted the ball again. I think Coach saw it in my eyes and drew up a play for me to attack, put the ball in my hands. He said, ‘Go make a play.’ Just happy with what happened.”

What happened: Van Gundy threw a slight wrinkle into the play, misdirection, to give Andre Drummond’s screen a better chance to free Jackson. It worked beautifully. Jackson got to the rim and scored. The only problem was he did it so quickly, it left Utah 17 seconds to answer.

Enter Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

It was he who grabbed Alec Burks’ missed 13-footer with nine seconds left, then drained two free throws to put the Pistons ahead by three. A few seconds later, he smothered Rodney Hood’s attempted tying triple, Jackson scooping up the ball and making the icing free throws.

“It was risky,” Caldwell-Pope said, knowing that mistiming his leap could have sent Hood to the line for three foul shots. “But (Derrick) Favors set a great screen, so I had to fight my way through it. I took a risk of going to block it – and I did.”

“He’s got great quickness and reactions and he’s got a desire to make the play at that point,” Van Gundy said. “That’s where it all starts. You’ve got to have a will to get a stop. And that’s different from hoping the guy misses.”

The Pistons had to use different tools to beat Utah than they employed to win at Atlanta, but the box scores held a few striking similarities, too. The grisly shooting numbers, for one. The scoring load has been distributed remarkably evenly over the starting lineup both nights. Only Ersan Ilyasova failed to get to double figures on Wednesday, finishing with eight points, with the other four contributing between 14 and 19. Stanley Johnson made it five scorers in double figures with 11 off the bench.

That bench – which continues to give Van Gundy confidence it will develop into a strength, he said – will go forward down one key player, though. Jodie Meeks limped to the locker room in the second corner and was diagnosed with a Jones fracture. Van Gundy said no timetable for recovery has been established yet, but it’s certain he’ll miss several weeks. That swings the door of opportunity open for Reggie Bullock, who had a most impressive preseason and now shoulders an everyday role.

Last year, when Meeks missed the first two months of the season with a back injury, the Pistons seemed ill-equipped to absorb his loss. This year, there’s a different feel – a palpable confidence that enabled the two exhilarating wins to launch Van Gundy’s second season.

“This team has a lot of fight,” said Drummond, who showed his growth by knocking down two critical free throws in the final minutes and hit 8 of 11 for the game, finishing with 18 and 10 boards for his second straight double-double. “We’ve got a lot of fighters on this team and we’re not taking no for an answer. When it comes down to crunch time, we know we’re all ready to put it all on the floor.”

And their all has been pretty darn good so far.

FAST BREAKDOWN...

Three quick observations from Friday night’s win over the Chicago Bulls...

SLAM DUNK – Well, maybe they will go 82-0. The Pistons stayed perfect, scoring the first seven points of overtime to beat Chicago 98-94 in a battle of unbeatens – hey, that sounds nice – at The Palace. Marcus Morris scored 26 points and got the Pistons off and running with a tough isolation jump shot to start overtime, followed by a Reggie Jackson layup and a triple from Anthony Tolliver. Andre Drummond was spectacular, recording his third straight double-double with a 20-20 game – 20 points and 20 rebounds. His 20th rebound was emphatic, soaring a foot above the rim to clean up Nikola Mirotic’s missed 3-point try with the Pistons ahead by five and a minute to play. Jackson added 22 points to go with seven assists and seve rebounds as the Pistons won despite shooting just 37.5 percent. Morris scored 15 points in the third quarter, making a handful of tough jump shots off of isolation plays. Derrick Rose went scoreless through three quarters for the Bulls, then scored eight points down the stretch. The Pistons scored 15 points in the game’s first four minutes – a 180-point pace – and then got to halftime with only 35. The Pistons scored only 12 points in the second quarter and trailed by four at halftime, but continued their dominant third-quarter play. The Pistons have outscored their three opponents this season 91-68 in the quarter.

FREE THROW – The Pistons have now shot 38 percent, 40 percent and 37.5 percent in their first three games. They were saved in the first two games by very good 3-point shooting (.396) and prolific foul shooting (outscoring opponents 45-27), but that wasn’t the case in their game with the Bulls. The Pistons shot 6 of 28 rom the 3-point arc and were outscored 19-14 at the foul line, a number inflated by Chicago’s intentional fouling in the final minute. Probably wise to keep in mind how many new moving parts Stan Van Gundy is trying to integrate here. Besides the two new starting forwards, Marcus Morris and Ersan Ilyasova, four of the five players in the second unit are also newcomers: Stanley Johnson, Aron Baynes, Steve Blake and Reggie Bullock. With the loss of Jodie Meeks, Van Gundy has just two players – Andre Drummond and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – who were with the team for the start of training camp a year ago. Joel Anthony, out of the rotation, joined the Pistons late in preseason a year ago.

3-POINTER – If the Pistons were going to lose anyone in their rotation, you can make the case that Jodie Meeks is the one they are best equipped to replace. Meeks will miss 12 to 16 weeks – so in the best case, he’d be back from his broken metatarsal in his right foot a little before the All-Star break – but the Pistons have Reggie Bullock, off an extremely impressive preseason, to slide into his role. Stan Van Gundy says that will change the nature of the second unit’s offense, which was heavy on running plays designed to free Meeks off of screens. But it could make the second unit more stout defensively, too. Bullock brings more size – a willowy 6-foot-7 to Meeks’ listed 6-foot-4 – and a little more one-on-one defensive ability. One other avenue that should become available to Van Gundy before Meeks is close to a return: using Brandon Jennings in combination with Reggie Jackson or Steve Blake to give the second unit a true go-to scorer. “It will certainly give us some good options,” Van Gundy said. Jennings is expected back sometime in December.

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