Shorthanded? No problem – Pistons get big game from Kennard, upend Spurs

Luke Kennard gave the shorthanded Pistons a big lift in the fourth quarter and scored a career-high 20 points in a big win over San Antonio.
Chris Schwegler/NBAE/Getty Images

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.”

FAST BREAKDOWN

Three quick observations from Wednesday night’s 111-104 loss to the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena

1-TOO MANY TRIPLES – Did the Pistons miss Andre Drummond? Oh, sure. He probably wasn’t going to be guarding much at the 3-point line – though he might have dissuaded the penetration that led to a lot of Miami’s 34 3-point attempts – and that was the ultimate back breaker in Miami. The Heat wound up hitting 17 from the arc and given that – combined with the absence of Drummond (right rib contusion), Reggie Jackson, Stanley Johnson and Jon Leuer on the night they got Avery Bradley back from a seven-game absence – it was remarkable they stayed as close as they did all night. It was still tied midway through the fourth quarter and the Pistons got within three with 1:17 left, but a killer possession – an offensive rebound, another full 24 seconds and a layup with 39 seconds left – all but clinched it for Miami. The Pistons led for the majority of the first half despite a growing disparity in 3-point production. They got to halftime down four points despite being outscored from the arc 33-9, Miami going 11 of 20 in the half, making seven in the second quarter alone. Reggie Bullock (17 points) hit three triples to give the Pistons a three-point lead early in the third quarter, but Miami answered with a 12-0 run to lead by nine. The Pistons answered back with a 13-2 run to regain the lead and it was tied at 81 headed to the fourth quarter and again at 94 midway through the fourth. The Heat took the lead for good, fittingly, on a Wayne Ellington triple, Miami’s 17th – tying the most for any Pistons opponent this season. Miami got big games from Goran Dragic (24 points, 13 assists), Kelly Olynyk (25 points, 13 rebounds) and Josh Richardson (22 points, 5 of 7 triples).

2-GALLOWAY ON ICE – Langston Galloway was the odd man out of Stan Van Gundy’s rotation with Avery Bradley’s return. Luke Kennard took up minutes behind both Reggie Bullock and Bradley and Dwight Buycks – not Galloway – served as Ish Smith’s backup. Buycks, who has about 30 days remaining of his original 45 allowed as a player on a two-way contract, did enough to give Van Gundy more to think about in his use of backcourt bench players. In 17 minutes, Buycks scored 14 points on 7 of 12 shooting and had four assists with just one turnover. Galloway has been in a shooting slump of late, going 2 of 19 from the 3-point line over his past five games. Van Gundy said the Pistons detected a flaw in his form – Buycks was drifting on jump shots, especially when going to his left – but he said Tuesday that the situation at backup point guard could very well be fluid from game to game. Kennard, coming off a career-best 20 points in Saturday’s win over San Antonio, had another strong performance with 13 points, hitting 6 of 7 shots.

3-DURABLE DRE – Since missing 20 games during his rookie season with a stress reaction of the lower back, Andre Drummond had missed just two games due to injury – and three overall – in the 363 games since the start of the 2013-14 season. Drummond missed one game in his second season and one game last season due to minor injuries and sat out the season finale in 2015-16 season when Stan Van Gundy rested all five starters prior to their playoff matchup against Cleveland. He sat out Wednesday’s morning shootaround with a right rib contusion but it wasn’t until the Pistons arrived at the arena that the decision was made to sit out. Drummond has put up averages of 14.3 points and 15.2 rebounds – that both leads the league and counts as a career best for him – with 3.7 assists per game, also easily a career best. It isn’t an injury expected to keep him out for long and his resume suggests there’s a pretty good chance it’ll be the only game he misses this season. So there’s that, anyway. Without Drummond, Boban Marjanovic started and 15 points, nine rebounds and three assists in 21 minutes. Eric Moreland played 18 minutes, going scoreless with five rebounds. Van Gundy also used Anthony Tolliver for brief interludes in each half to guard Kelly Olynyk when he played center. Without Drummond, the Pistons were outrebounded 41-35.

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