Pistons spot Knicks 21-point cushion, then roar back to spoil MSG opener

Tobias Harris scored 31 points as the Pistons erased a 21-point deficit to win at New York and spoil the Knicks home opener
Nathaniel S. Butler (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

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:

  • A resilience familiar in 2015-16 but strangely absent last year. The Pistons kicked the ball away way too often in Friday’s 115-111 loss at Washington, but they came back from 15 down in the fourth quarter when they looked dead in the water. They dug an even deeper hole against the Knicks – 21 points late in the second quarter – but chipped away at it and got to the fourth quarter trailing by just a point.

    “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.”

  • Jackson is physically fine. We can probably stop talking about the knee tendinosis now that cost him the first 21 games of last season but essentially robbed him of his passing gear for the entire 82-game schedule.

    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.”

  • Tobias Harris, more a focal point of the offense with the departure of Marcus Morris, is hitting his stride. His 31-point production against the Knicks gives him an average of 24.3 over three games.

    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.

    For more on Tolliver’s big night – and his teammates’ and Van Gundy’s reaction to it – hit the link.

  • FAST BREAKDOWN

    Three quick observations from Monday night’s 97-86 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers at Little Caesars Arena

    1-21-POINT HOLE, AGAIN – Just as they’d done two nights earlier at New York, the Pistons dug a 21-point hole deep into the second quarter. Just as they’d done at Madison Square Garden, they got a spark from a player they hadn’t used in the first 20 minutes. The Pistons closed the half at New York with a 15-7 run over the final 3:41; it was a 13-5 run over the final 4:07 against the 76ers. Anthony Tolliver sparked the Pistons at New York, hitting three 3-pointers and scoring nine points. This time, it was Langston Galloway who didn’t play the first 20 minutes but entered and quickly hit two 3-pointers after the Pistons opened 2 of 16 from the arc before his entry. The Pistons pulled within three points early in the fourth quarter, fell behind by 10 again and went on a 6-0 run to get within four. But they misfired on three straight possessions and Philadelphia got free throws from Ben Simmons (a triple-double with 21 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists) and Joel Embiid (30 points, 11 of 15 shooting) and a three-point play from Embiid to push its lead back to 11. Moral of the story: You can’t spot the other guy 21 points and expect to win very often. The Pistons held Philadelphia to 41 second-half points and forced 15 second-half turnovers, but they couldn’t generate enough offense, shooting 39 percent overall and 20 percent – 6 of 30 – from the 3-point line.

    2-BOMBS AWAY, GALLOWAY – The Pistons wasted no time locking up Langston Galloway in free agency, striking a three-year deal on July 1. The thing that appealed to Stan Van Gundy more than anything was Galloway’s fearlessness in launching threes – well, that and the fact he made 39 percent of them last season, better than anyone Van Gundy had as a part of his regular rotation. A bone bruise in his knee suffered during late July kept him sidelined for more than a month and affected his conditioning. Galloway was held back the first week of training camp and Van Gundy didn’t play him at New York on Saturday – the third game in four nights – because he thought he looked sluggish the night before at Washington. Luke Kennard got first crack at minutes behind Avery Bradley against Philadelphia, but Van Gundy went to Galloway late in the second quarter and gave him plenty of time in the second half. At one point, Galloway was 3 of 4 from the 3-point line and his teammates were 2 of 18. Galloway finished with nine points and missed just one shot in 12 minutes. The Pistons were a plus-17 during his minutes.

    3-ROTATION DECISIONS LOOM – Stan Van Gundy says he’d like to get to a little more definition in his rotation by the time the Pistons return from a three-game road trip to California in the middle of next week. They’ll have played eight games by then, roughly 10 percent of the schedule. But Van Gundy isn’t veering from his off-season declaration to use the entire roster. “I’d like to settle and have eight or nine guys you pretty much know are going to be your first guys off the bench every night,” he said. “But then probably have another two guys, maybe three, that are situational-type guys, so they’re not just buried.” He pretty much knows the identity of two players off the bench who’ll play every night: Ish Smith and Jon Leuer. After that, he’ll choose between Luke Kennard, Langston Galloway and Reggie Bullock – whose suspension ends after Wednesday’s game with Minnesota – for backup minutes behind Avery Bradley and Stanley Johnson; between Eric Moreland and Boban Marjanovic, with Leuer another possibility, behind Andre Drummond at center; and between Henry Ellenson and Anthony Tolliver for a role at power forward when Tobias Harris shifts to small forward and Leuer is occupied at center or needs a rest. Leuer got all the backup center minutes against Philly. Tolliver got the call at power forward over Ellenson. Galloway might not have played if not for the struggles of Stanley Johnson – zero points, rebounds or assists; four fouls – and the need to inject some 3-point shooting into the lineup on a night the Pistons sputtered from the arc.

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