Shorthanded? No problem – Pistons get big game from Kennard, upend Spurs
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DETROIT – On the list of improbable Pistons wins this season, we have a new No. 1.
It might not be as sexy as the wins at Golden State and Boston, but beating San Antonio without four of the seven players Stan Van Gundy counted on to play every night when the season opened – and doing it in wire-to-wire fashion, no less – surely registers as one of the more remarkable wins of the NBA season.
The Pistons did it not the way most NBA upsets occur these days – with stellar 3-point shooting – though they got career-best scoring games from Reggie Bullock (22) and rookie Luke Kennard (20). They did it with defense – their best defensive game of the year, in fact.
“No question. It was,” Stan Van Gundy said after the 93-79 win. “We just played so hard.”
The Pistons held the Spurs to 20 points for the game’s first 18 minutes and led by 15. But the game was being played at such a pace and with almost no breaks for free throws – the Spurs shot eight in the first half, the Pistons none – Van Gundy saw tongues wagging. The Spurs closed within a point at 37-36 when the Pistons went eight straight possessions without scoring.
“We got tired. If that second quarter had been two or three minutes longer, it would’ve been a problem,” he said. “The game was so up and down. We had guys really tired tonight, but tired for legitimate reasons. One of the things we said at halftime is everybody’s got to come back in here exhausted after the game. And we were. We were.”
If there was a cracking point, it figured to come to start the fourth quarter with the Pistons ahead by six points but Van Gundy leaning on a patched-together second unit depleted by the four injured players missing: backcourt starters Avery Bradley and Reggie Jackson and Jon Leuer off the bench plus Saturday’s addition to sick bay, Stanley Johnson, out with a strained hip flexor.
But Kennard carried the offense early and amassed 12 of his 20 points in the quarter.
“It was good. I guard Luke sometimes in practice,” Bullock said. “When he gets into the lane with those head fakes, like a European player, he draws a lot of fouls. He makes the right read – throws the lob, make the skip pass, hit the four man on the back pass. He was making plays for us. He was carrying us and players were just finding him.”
Kennard hit 4 of 5 triples and Bullock 4 of 7. The rest of the team: 0 of 12.
“There’s some nights where the ball’s just not going to go in and tonight we didn’t shoot it that great as a team,” Anthony Tolliver said. “We won that game with defense. It’s just a great sign because whenever you can win games with defense, you start hitting shots and those games become crazy wins. We’re just going to keep working on building our identity as a defensive team and keep working.”
Tolliver scored just one point, but grabbed seven rebounds and made his most critical contribution with his defense on LaMarcus Aldridge, who finished with 15 points but hit just 6 of 15 shots. Bullock had the other key defensive assignment, Kawhi Leonard, and he finished with 18 points on 4 of 11 from the field.
“A.T. makes it tough on Aldridge,” Van Gundy said. “I thought those two guys, he and Bullock, played those two guys well. And Andre (Drummond) gave them a lot of help on pick and rolls.”
Van Gundy said Drummond’s “defensive disposition early in the game was the best it’s been all year. He was on it right from the beginning and I thought that set a great tone.”
Drummond had 10 boards in the first quarter and finished with 14 points, 21 rebounds, six assists, three steals and no turnovers.
“He was outstanding,” Van Gundy said.
But it all might have gone for naught – the intensity, the outstanding defense, the rallying from a team down four key players – if not for the offense Kennard provided in the clutch. The way he carried the scoring early in the fourth quarter gave Van Gundy the leeway not to rush Drummond and Ish Smith back into the game too early and risk running them into the ground had the Spurs been able to erase that early six-point deficit after three quarters.
“I just thought he played really well,” Van Gundy said. “A lot of guys played well, but Luke played really, really well tonight.”
“He played a great game,” Tobias Harris said. “Shooting the ball in rhythm. He gave us a huge spark. It’s great to see from a young player, just how composed he is out there. I was happy for him.”
Kennard also had three steals and won his matchup against a player he’d do well to emulate, future Hall of Famer Manu Ginobili. Van Gundy even thought Kennard was part of the reason the Pistons held the Spurs under 80 points and to 37 percent shooting on a night defensive intensity was as contagious as the injury bug that’s torn through the Pistons locker room.
“It all stemmed from the defensive effort,” he said. “That’s where everything came from. We played extremely hard. If you go out and put that much effort into the game then you can live with the results one way or another. I thought our guys brought a collective intensity and effort tonight to really go out and battle.”