Strong first half, then first-game breakdowns aplenty as Pistons drop LCA opener

Andre Drummond hit 6 of 8 free throws and led the Pistons in scoring in their loss to Charlotte
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

DETROIT – Let’s let Stan Van Gundy disabuse you of the notion that preseason games are viewed through the same lens as the ones that count for real.

The Pistons opened their preseason – their first game at Little Caesars Arena – with the same opponent that will return for the regular-season opener Oct. 18, Charlotte. If the Pistons squander an 18-point halftime lead then – as they did Wednesday in a 108-106 loss – you will not hear Mr. Van Gundy use the same phraseology he used in describing this night: “Really, from a coaching standpoint, it couldn’t have been a much better game.”

Van Gundy talked after the first week of training camp that the outstanding trait he’d seen was sharp ball movement and his red flag was too many turnovers. The ball movement was on full display in the first half as the Pistons built a 65-47 lead, the turnovers rearing their head after halftime when the Pistons were outscored 33-16 and then allowed a 12-0 Hornets run midway through the fourth quarter.

When the Pistons scored on just one of their first 11 third-quarter possessions, Van Gundy turned to assistant coaches Bob Beyer and Tim Hardaway and said, “This is almost perfect.”

“Players gain the confidence in that if we play a certain way – moving the ball, playing hard defensively and everything else – we can be very good. And when we didn’t match their effort – I thought their effort was higher than ours in the second half – and when it got tight we quit moving the ball and it became a one-on-one game, then we’re not very good.”

Another stark difference between this and when it matters: how Van Gundy treats the day before a game and game day. The Pistons practiced twice on Monday, went for three hours Tuesday morning and then came downtown for the evening’s “Meet the Team” event at LCA, followed by an extended game-day walk through Wednesday morning.

“I’m actually in some ways surprised that we even had the energy we had in the first half,” he said. “This wasn’t the ideal situation.”

The first quarter – and particularly the first eight minutes or so, while starters Andre Drummond, Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Stanley Johnson and Ish Smith were together – saw the Pistons dominate at both ends in building a 26-14 lead behind the active defense of Bradley and Johnson, Smith pushing in transition, Drummond dominating the interior and Harris slashing and running a lane.

“I thought our defensive intensity was crazy,” Johnson said. “We were on ’em. I think we were moving the ball really, really well. We were playing cohesive, together. As I said before camp, I think we’re just a different group of guys. And we’re not even close to done yet.”

Reggie Jackson sat out with tightness in his groin, an injury the Pistons don’t expect will keep him out long. They hope he’s in the lineup Friday when the Pistons host Atlanta. In his absence, Smith played 31 minutes and Langston Galloway – limited for much of camp’s first week with a bone bruise – got thrown into the fire at point guard primarily before playing with Smith down the stretch.

“I’m still not 100 percent,” said Galloway, who hit 2 of 5 3-pointers on a night the starters were 3 of 18, a stat Van Gundy wrote off to dead legs from the camp grind. “Just got to keep fighting and getting ready. I don’t think we hit the wall. I think we just made some bonehead plays down the stretch.”

Van Gundy went five deep into his bench with Galloway leading a second unit that also consisted of Henry Ellenson, Jon Leuer, Luke Kennard and Boban Marjanovic. Ellenson was impressive, stroking two triples and creating four points for Drummond on assertive drives. He and Kennard both finished with 10 points, Leuer with 12.

Drummond led the Pistons with 16 points and 15 boards while also hitting 6 of 8 free throws, putting his new shooting form on public display to positive reviews.

“I thought he played really, really well – really, really hard,” Van Gundy said. “Got on the boards, did some great things, made free throws. I was happy with him.”

Happy with the night all around – in a way he wouldn’t be at all if the same result were handed to him in two weeks. When the games start counting for real.

FAST BREAKDOWN

Three quick observations from Wednesday night’s 108-106 loss to the Charlotte Hornets at Little Caesars Arena

1-GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS – A lot to like in the Little Caesars debut’s first half, a lot to work on from the second half of the preseason opener . The Pistons quickly built a double-digit lead and were up 18 at halftime, then scored on just one of their first 11 third-quarter possessions in getting outscored 15-2. The lead was down to one to start the fourth quarter. After building it back to 10, Charlotte used a 12-0 run to take its first lead with 4:11 to play. With the Hornets up by a point and the Pistons going for the go-ahead basket, Tobias Harris lost his dribble and turned it over. About that first half: Andre Drummond hit 5 of 6 free throws in the first half. The ball movement was crisp, continuing a trend Stan Van Gundy noted in the first week of training camp. The depth he’s talked about was on full display. The first unit’s defense in their first six minutes together was superb. In the second half, Charlotte was in the penalty less than four minutes into the third quarter. The Pistons became turnover prone and ball movement stagnated. They opened the fourth quarter with a unit of Drummond, Luke Kennard, Langston Galloway, Stanley Johnson and Jon Leuer and opened the lead back to eight in the first five minutes and were up 10 when the Hornets started their run to go ahead. Tobias Harris lost his dribble driving into traffic on the final possession with the Pistons down 107-106. Drummond finished 6 of 8 at the line and led the Pistons with 16 points and 15 rebounds.

2-NO. 1 PICKS PLAYING TO FORM – Stan Van Gundy said it was going to be very hard to keep Luke Kennard off the floor and it was easy to see why. In the first half of his debut, Kennard went 3 for 3 for seven points and finished with 10 points. That included a transition corner 3 and a clever move to free himself for an open baseline jumper. Last year’s No. 1 pick, Henry Ellenson, also impressed. He was first off the bench, coming on midway through the first quarter, and quickly showed the thing that makes him a unique player for his position and a difficult cover for power forwards by twice putting the ball on the floor and producing four points for Andre Drummond, feeding him for a layup and then another would-be layup that turned into two free throws. Ellenson had a nice spurt in the second half that included a triple and two free throws when he ran the floor and got fouled. He also finished with 10 points. Stanley Johnson, Van Gundy’s first No. 1 pick, had several plays that coaches appreciate – a hustle offensive rebound, a deflection, a few solid decisions and simple passes – in an outing that had everything except knocking down open shots. Johnson missed his first four shots, three of them triples, before knocking down a wing 3. He finished with eight points and four boards.

3-A DOSE OF BOBAN – Stan Van Gundy is committed to seeing what steady a dose of Boban Marjanovic might yield. He doesn’t want to make knee-jerk decisions to yank Marjanovic from games if the opposition counters by putting a mobile, perimeter-shooting threat at center to draw him away from the basket and make him defend pick and rolls. In the first half, his minutes came against Dwight Howard and Marjanovic scored on all three of his post touches with one basket and 3 of 4 free throws. Marjanovic finished with five points and seven rebounds in 12 minutes. Usually a reliable foul shooter, he was just 3 of 6 at the line after missing both of his third-quarter attempts. “It’ll depend on game situations, certainly, but we’d like to be in a situation where we use Boban regularly,” Van Gundy said. “We’ll just see how that goes. We’ll see how we adjust to that as a team defensively.”

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