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.