Stanley Johnson ‘helps out’ – for 44 minutes – as Pistons survive first game minus KCP

Stanley Johnson logged a career-high 44 minutes as he starred standing in for the injured Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

When teams erase all of huge deficits – not just cut deeply into them, but actually break through the other side and go ahead – it almost never ends well for the team blowing the massive lead.

And it probably wouldn’t have for the Pistons, either, when they saw a 27-point lead get zapped by the Knicks, if not for the guy stepping into Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s starting spot.

Stan Van Gundy said earlier this week he was looking for ways to get more minutes for Stanley Johnson. Losing Caldwell-Pope to a core muscle strain that will keep him out at least until the resumption of play following the All-Star break on Feb. 19 isn’t the desired method, but Johnson at least proved more than capable of shouldering greater responsibility in the 111-105 win over the Knicks.

“I thought he was tremendous,” Van Gundy said after Johnson logged 44 minutes and led the Pistons with 22 points plus nine rebounds, five assists, two steals and a blocked shot. “Second start of his career. Thought he played real well. We were even going to him down the stretch before Reggie hit the threes. We were running plays for him. Fearless. Getting better all the time. Not afraid to make plays.”

To be sure, the triple that Anthony Tolliver hit and the two Reggie Jackson added to quickly return the lead to the Pistons after the Knicks went ahead by two points were gigantic. But the game was in danger of getting away from the Pistons before then, their offense turned stagnant and their defense mushy, when Johnson hit two big baskets midway through the quarter.

On one, he took the ball right at New York 7-footer Robin Lopez and scored a tough contested basket. On another, he spun around a pick and roll and drained a mid-range jump shot. He was asked how exciting it was to have his number called at crunch time.

“I don’t think it was exciting, because if you get excited you might mess the play up,” he said. “You just kind of go with it. He called the play, I just went with it and you’ve just got to make the right play. Running the pick and roll, everything slows down a little bit.”

As impressive as it is for a rookie to shoulder 44 minutes and still have enough left to make a handful of the game’s biggest plays in the fourth quarter, Johnson’s play doesn’t really come as a surprise to his teammates. They’ve seen his readiness and his confidence since the early days of training camp.

“It’s awesome. He’s a really good player,” Tolliver said. “We’ve known it the whole season. He’s getting a great opportunity now with KCP out. He’s just really still learning the game. That’s a good thing for him because he’s going to have a bright future, as long as he keeps his head on straight and continues to work hard and play hard like he does.”

Jackson said he and Johnson discussed strategy on the plane ride back from Boston. What was it? Johnson wouldn’t say, but figures that when Caldwell-Pope comes back, the Pistons now have another tool in their belt to throw at teams.

“What me and Reggie did tonight was different,” Johnson said. “I think it helped a little bit, so I think when (Caldwell-Pope) gets back, having ways for guys who can do stuff like that is going to make it tough for (opponents) to play.”

“Amazing,” Jackson said of Johnson’s contributions. “We talked about it on the plane, the game plan coming in between us two, how we were going to approach this game. He did everything that he told me he was going to do. He’s definitely somebody who has the utmost confidence in himself and he’s one of those, he says he’s going to do it then he’s going to go out and compete. He came up tremendously big.”

Van Gundy sensed some of his veterans feeling the heat as the Knicks took big chunks out of the lead, but not his youngest player.

“We were struggling. I decided to start going to him,” Van Gundy said. “I thought some of our other guys maybe tightened up a little bit and that’s not him. Pretty amazing for a 19-year-old kid.”

Somebody said to Van Gundy, “He relishes the moment.”

“Yeah, he does. He and Reggie both. It’s good to have a couple of guys like that. … I think Stanley’s going to be a really good player. And he handled huge minutes tonight on the fifth game in seven nights, played (44) minutes and played real well. Nine rebounds, made some really good passes. Just played extremely well.”

“I knew I was going to walk into heavy minutes,” Johnson said. “For me going into the game, I was like, ‘How do I keep up (Caldwell-Pope’s) defensive intensity and offensively – we don’t play the same, so I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it in his way, but I thought I could help out on both sides.”

Yeah, you could say he helped out. Just a little.