Pistons passing, suffocating D leads to big win as they pull back to .500
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DETROIT – Quite the week for Stanley Johnson. He started it by scoring a career-high 26 while guarding LeBron James and ended it by guarding C.J. McCollum with a little Damian Lillard sprinkled in.
“His versatility is crazy,” Blake Griffin said after the Pistons crushed Portland 111-91 to run their winning streak to four games and climb back to .500 in the week since the Clippers shocked the NBA by trading him. “You look at him, he’s built like a linebacker but he can move his feet like a guard, so we’ll lean on him a lot to give guys fits.”
It wasn’t just Johnson that enabled the Pistons to limit Portland’s explosive backcourt duo to a combined 34 points, 13 less than their average. Ish Smith, Langston Galloway and Reggie Bullock all had their share of one-on-one time with one or the other. And the lateral mobility of Andre Drummond and Griffin was critical in pushing them beyond their sweet spots, even given their preposterous shooting range.
“That’s everything,” Johnson said. “When Andre’s able to get up and pressure them, it gives me time to recover and get back in front of my man. Pick and roll makes it a transition situation where it’s two people on one and the fact he’s able to stop that and give me a chance to get back in front a majority of the time, he’s probably the best in the league. It’s pretty easy to do my job when he’s doing stuff like that.”
Pistons assistant coach Malik Allen had the Portland game prep and it was his call to give Johnson the matchup with McCollum. Stan Van Gundy didn’t expect that – and Johnson really didn’t expect it.
“I didn’t get that one at all,” he said. “I’m going to be honest. But if they think I can do that it means I definitely can do it. I grew up playing in the park. Both of ’em – Dame and him – are a really tough cover.”
Drummond, coming off an Eastern Conference Player of the Week honor as the Pistons went 3-0 while he averaged 19.7 points and 19.0 rebounds, was headed for another 20-20 but came out of the game with six minutes left and the Pistons ahead by 19 with 17 points and 17 rebounds.
“It was my job tonight to make them uncomfortable,” he said. “Get into them and really make them make decisions. They took a lot of tough shots, a lot of off-balance jump shots and runners. I think our pick-and-roll defense was very good tonight and obviously the scoreboard showed it.”
With their defense limiting Portland to less than 25 points in all four quarters, the Pistons had enough breathing room for their offense to break loose. And it did, the Pistons scoring 62 points after halftime. Van Gundy hoped to get more flow as he retools the playbook to better exploit Griffin’s versatility and it came together against a top-10 defense to the tune of 36 assists, four better than the previous season high.
Until the bench cleared late, Van Gundy went with a pared-down, eight-man rotation, using only Luke Kennard, Langston Galloway and Anthony Tolliver off the bench. Among those top eight players, seven had at least three assists. The three-man bench shot 16 of 24 and combined for 40 points. With Van Gundy trying to keep one of Griffin and Drummond on the floor, Griffin – who finished with 21 points, nine rebounds and six assists – winds up the center with the second unit.
“Those guys have done a great job of flashing to the ball and being present and being open,” he said. “That’s really it. You find the mismatch, you force a double team and you find the open guy. Our offense has been pretty simple in that regard.”
“He draws a lot of attention,” said Kennard, who had more bounce in his step after missing Saturday’s win with a blister issue with his foot and finished with 12 points and four assists in 24 minutes, hitting 5 of 7 shots. “He’s one of the best players in our league. It’s tough to play him one on one, so you’ve got to have a lot of attention on him and it opens the floor for other guys to make plays and he’s a really good passer. I really enjoy playing with him.”
What’s not to like? The Pistons, whose playoff odds a week ago seemed bleak in the throes of an eight-game losing streak, even found themselves back in the playoff field with the win by virtue of the fact they’ve played more games to earn their .500 record than Philadelphia, which fell to the No. 9 spot. Losses by Miami and Indiana also moved the Pistons within a game of each in the loss column.
“It’s been a good start, but I’ve played in this league long enough to know there’s ups and downs,” Griffin said. “This mini-season – whatever you want to call it of having the new group of guys – it’s going to be the same way. We have to play harder to make up for our lack of chemistry, but I’m very encouraged by how everybody’s playing.”