Pistons spot Knicks 21-point cushion, then roar back to spoil MSG opener
Nathaniel S. Butler (NBAE/Getty)
NEW YORK – The Pistons confronted multiple demons and stared them all down.
The NBA’s worst team last season in back to backs with a 3-14 record, the Pistons start this season 1-0 with their 111-107 win at New York. Sporting a 3-8 record in the Big Apple against the lottery-bound Knicks and Nets over the past three years – and 1-7 the past two years – the Pistons start 2016-17 at 1-0 in the city that never sleeps. Bonus: They even ruined the season opener at Madison Square Garden against a Knicks team that had Friday night off to get ready for the Pistons.
Outshot from the free throw line by a whopping 32 attempts in their first two games, the Pistons continued that ominous trend Saturday night, too – but won anyway, despite staying right on their average of 16 fewer foul shots a game. And it ended 31-15 in favor of the Knicks only because New York intentionally fouled Reggie Jackson twice in the final seconds.
But there are a few other things tending positively for the Pistons. Let’s tick those off:
“Some of the guys coming back taking greater pride and understanding,” Stan Van Gundy said about the different feel of this team. “We’ve really seen Reggie, Andre (Drummond), Stanley (Johnson) step up a lot more in terms of that. But I think Avery (Bradley), quite honestly, has had a lot to do with it. You watch him every day in practice and it raises everybody’s level.”
“It’s huge for us,” said Drummond, whose blocked shot of Kristaps Porzingis at the rim with 37 seconds left and the Pistons up three was also “huge,” as Van Gundy said. “We’ve had a problem winning here in New York. To get one here on a back to back is huge for us. It shows the fight we have. It shows the dedication and the hard work we put in.”
He’s played three games in four nights now, played 32-plus minutes on Friday and came back with a strong 26-plus minutes against the Knicks. He finished with 16 points, seven assists and zero turnovers. He scored seven points in the fourth quarter, including a gorgeous floater converted into a three-point play with 1:41 left to give the Pistons the lead for good, 105-102.
“He was attacking the basket and then you put the ball in his hands and he makes all seven free throws, finished out the game really, really well,” Van Gundy said. “The thing for us is Reggie’s making so much greater effort at the defensive end of the floor. That’s the biggest change.”
Jackson also crossed a psychological threshold, he admitted. After the game, bantering with Johnson and Drummond, Jackson heard his teammates say, “Man, you look good, especially coming back from injury.”
“That’s when I remembered, ‘Oh, crap, I had an injury.’ I used that last season to motivate me and fuel me, but now I’ve kind of put it behind me,” Jackson said. “When I sit back and reminisce on it, it does feel good to be able to go out there and play my allotted minutes with no restrictions and continue to attack the paint and make plays. Especially, consistently be able to get in the paint. Feels good. Feels good to be able to do that again.”
Porzingis got the Knicks off and running, hitting his first seven shots and 8 of 10 in the first half. But Harris had him spinning in circles, quite literally on an 11-footer in the paint with 45 seconds to play to put the Pistons ahead 107-104 just ahead of Drummond’s block of Porzingis.
“Porzingis kills you at one end and, y’know, so they were – for some reason – playing him on Tobias,” Van Gundy said, trying to diplomatically say Porzingis isn’t quite the same force at the other end. “I don’t know why they were, so we went at that pick and roll.”
“Just try to make him move in different spots,” Harris said of going at the 7-foot-3 Latvian with the unlimited range and feathery shooting touch. “He’s a bigger guy. Just use my speed vs. him and get some open looks out there.”
Harris played all of the second half at small forward when Van Gundy juggled his lineup and inserted Anthony Tolliver. In fact, the move to Tolliver came with 2:53 left in the second quarter and the Pistons down 18 after Porzingis hit two free throws. They cut it to 13 by halftime and Tolliver guarded Porzingis pretty much all of the second half. After being inactive for the opener and in uniform but not used in Friday’s game, Tolliver had as big a hand in Saturday’s win as anyone.
“He was the MVP for us tonight,” Jackson said.