Pistons rev up fast break and trounce T-wolves behind hot shooting

Andre Drummond grabbed his 5,000th career rebound as the Pistons overcame a slow start to rout the Minnesota Timberwolves
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

DETROIT – And that’s how Stan Van Gundy – after remaking the roster over the off-season and redrawing his playbook to play to the strengths of a new cast – imagined the Pistons would roll.

Well, except for the first three minutes.

After all the angst about slow starts leading to 21-point deficits in each of the past two first halves, the Pistons came out and … promptly fell behind 9-0 to Minnesota.

“I don’t want to talk about that,” Van Gundy said after the 122-101 win over the Timberwolves that saw the Pistons outscore them 63-35 over the first half’s final 21 minutes. “We played 45 minutes of really good – most complete game we’ve played all year. I’m not going to talk about the first three minutes.”

Lopsided wins usually produce a smorgasbord of happy stats, but the one that popped from the final box score was this one: fast-break points – Pistons 24, Timberwolves 0.

What does that tell you?

“That we were out running and that our defense was fueling that,” said Tobias Harris, who tied a career high with 34 points and is now averaging 23.6 over five games. “We were able to get stops and get out and get some easy buckets, high-percentage shots, dunks. And then we were able to go from there.”

And go and go and go.

“It is rare to have that disparity (in fast-break points) and we’re not usually scoring a lot of fast-break points,” Van Gundy said, “though we are running more. I think we’re hopefully becoming a decent defensive team and with Andre (Drummond) we’re a great rebounding team. We’ve got to take advantage of that and get out and run. I thought our guys ran harder tonight and our point guards got the ball ahead to them.”

Ish Smith led a season-best 32 assist-night with 13 with nine players picking up at least one and Drummond and Reggie Jackson adding four each. The Pistons also wound up with a 47-37 rebound cushion led by Drummond’s 15 boards, pushing him past 5,000 for his career and on pace to become the franchise’s all-time leader by the time the 2020-21 season ends.

“At the defensive end we made it tough for them,” Drummond said. “We definitely were in all the right spots, we got out in transition, we made all the right plays. It was just an all-around good game for us.”

Van Gundy has been encouraging all of his wing players to run the floor in a higher gear and was especially goosing Stanley Johnson to do so. Johnson had played well, if not shot well, in the team’s first three games before a miserable night in Monday’s loss, but he was at his best against Minnesota. A backcourt steal gave him a layup – his first Little Caesars Arena basket after 15 misses – and jump started a 15-point night that included sticky defense, first on Shabazz Muhammad and later on Andrew Wiggins.

“I played my role,” Johnson said. “Brought energy to the game, got a quick early steal, got two early layups all by running the floor. If you listen to the coach, maybe you play well on offense.”

Nobody was better on offense than Harris, who hit 6 of 9 from the 3-point line and 14 of 24 overall despite starting 1 of 6. A year ago, he admits a start like that likely would have had him putting his head down and plowing into traffic to try to score at the rim or draw a foul.

“Definitely would have a little bit different mindset of trying to drive and get some easy ones,” Harris said. “But when (Van Gundy) took me out, I just evaluated some of my shots I took and a lot of them were rushed a little bit, off balance, and was able to settle down and take what the game gave me a little bit better. Just lock in to the looks I was going to get and then I was able to feed off of that, really.”

Drummond grinned and put it a little differently.

“Shooting the damn three ball like he’s supposed to instead of putting the ball on the floor when he’s open,” he said. “I’m really happy about that. He’s shooting the wide-open three. It’s good to see him playing so well.”

The Pistons shot 52 percent, 44 percent from the 3-point line and put six in double figures with Henry Ellenson scoring 14 off the bench and all but getting Van Gundy’s endorsement for a more or less permanent spot in the rotation afterward.

Players moved, the ball moved and the ball found the open guy, early – well, after the first three minutes, at least – and often.

“Thirty-two assists and everybody got involved in moving the ball,” Van Gundy said. “It was really good. Really sharp. Tonight’s sort of what we want it to look like. It always looks better when the ball’s going in the basket. But we need to play that way and for some of our guys this is really different. We’re trying to play with a lot more movement.”

Less is being put on the point guards and everybody has to fit new roles and unlearn old habits. It won’t always look as free flowing and pretty as it looked for the final 45 minutes of their romp over Minnesota. But that was a pretty good sign for what the future might look like. There could be some raucous nights at Little Caesars Arena around the corner.

FAST BREAKDOWN

Three quick observations from Wednesday night’s 122-101 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves

1-QUICK TURNAROUND – Both Stan Van Gundy and Tom Thibodeau lamented the fact their opponent suffered lethargic home losses their last time out, a component of every basketball coach’s DNA. “This is a really good team coming off a really bad home loss,” Van Gundy said before the game. “Not the ideal time to be catching them.” “The start of the game will be critical,” Thibodeau said. Well, Minnesota had a great start – for three minutes, at least. After spotting Philadelphia a 7-0 lead two nights earlier when the Pistons lost, this time they allowed Minnesota to score the first nine points. But the Pistons executed a 28-point turnaround by halftime to lead 63-44 and were never seriously threatened. Stanley Johnson, who was 0 for 14 shooting in his first two games at Little Caesars Arena, missed his first shot but then made four straight and finished with 15 points. Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley each started 1 of 6, then got hot. Harris scored 14 of his 34 and Bradley nine of his 20 in the second quarter when the Pistons opened with a 15-2 run and outscored Minnesota 40-18. Harris hit 6 of 9 from the 3-point line as the Pistons had their best game from the arc, hitting 14 of 33.
The Pistons were especially effective in transition, finishing with a whopping 24-0 advantage in fast-break points. Ish Smith did damage in transition, finishing with 13 of the team’s season-high 31 assists.

2-DOMINANT DRE – With his fourth rebound of the game – an offensive rebound snatched above the crowd, converted into a tough bank shot – Andre Drummond reached 5,000 for his career and got their faster than anybody who’s ever played save Dwight Howard. That gives Stan Van Gundy a unique place as the guy who coached both of them. “I’ve been privileged to have guys who rebound the ball like that. It takes away a lot of other problems and Andre – as was Dwight – is a historically great rebounder. There just haven’t been many better, ever, in the history of the league. I didn’t realize he was already getting to five thousand. That’s a lot of rebounds, man. That’s a lot of rebounds,” Van Gundy said. Drummond, in his sixth season, already ranks sixth in franchise history and will pass Larry Foust well before the midway point of the season if he stays healthy. That will put him behind a Pistons rebounding Mount Rushmore of Bill Laimbeer (9,430), Bob Lanier (8,063), Ben Wallace (7,264) and Dennis Rodman (6,299). If Drummond averages 1,121.5 rebounds over this and the next three seasons, he’ll surpass Laimbeer in the 2021-22 season as the team’s all-time leader. Drummond has averaged 1,122 rebounds a game since becoming a starter in his second season. Drummond finished with 15 points, 15 rebounds and four assists.

3-BENCH JOCKEYING – The Pistons rotation isn’t yet established, Stan Van Gundy saying earlier Wednesday that he and his staff will evaluate the opening five games before making possible tweaks in the two days off before the Pistons next play, Saturday at the Los Angeles Clippers. Of note from the Minnesota game rotation, Jon Leuer –as he’s done since the second half at New York on Saturday – was Andre Drummond’s backup over Eric Moreland and Boban Marjanovic, inactive for a second straight game; Henry Ellenson was the backup power forward; and Langston Galloway got the call over Luke Kennard at shooting guard behind Avery Bradley. Reggie Bullock will be back on Saturday after serving his five-game suspension. Ellenson, who scored 13 points in the opener but played only briefly at New York since, had a strong game despite some tough luck from the 3-point line (2 of 7). He finished with 14 points and five rebounds in 21 minutes and held his own on defense against Gorgui Dieng and Nemanja Bjelica.

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