Super sub Stanley Johnson? His bench turn leads Pistons to rout of Bucks

Stanley Johnson came off the bench to star as the Pistons snapped a 3-game losing streak by crushing Milwaukee
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

DETROIT – The Pistons trailed 29-20 late in the first quarter, about time for Stan Van Gundy to start sprinkling his bench into the mix – the time when games have unraveled swiftly and emphatically for them of late.

Didn’t happen this time. It was tied at 32 by the time the quarter ended and the Pistons made skid marks out of Milwaukee after that. Milwaukee’s first 29 points took 10 minutes and its next 29 took 17.

The bench, dominated in losses to Boston and Charlotte coming out of the break, outscored Milwaukee 65-30 this time.

Then again, it wasn’t exactly the same bench. Stanley Johnson came off of it this time and he gets the game ball for scoring 19 points with six rebounds and four assists. He also played as big a role as anyone – Blake Griffin and Anthony Tolliver also took their turns – in making Giannis Antetokounmpo a non-factor.

In Johnson’s 30 minutes, the Pistons were 36 points better than Milwaukee in a game they won 110-87.

Is it that simple – move Johnson to the bench, bench problems solved?

“Hey, one-game sample size,” Johnson said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. The season brings you the game plan. The games come to you; you don’t come to the games. So you just try to play as hard as possible. That’s the first thing. We played hard tonight, harder than the other team and that’s where it starts. We have to continue that to be where we want to be at.”

Nothing underscored that whole “playing harder than the other team” thing than the rebounding numbers, 57-35 in favor of the Pistons. Andre Drummond had 16, 10 offensive, and Eric Moreland – who set career highs in scoring (10) and rebounding (12) – added five offensive boards. Their 22 offensive rebounds, coupled with a mere 11 turnovers, enabled the Pistons to get up 22 more shots than Milwaukee.

“I liked the way we played,” Stan Van Gundy said. “We had a lot of movement, cutting, got a lot of guys involved. Really energetic offensively, I thought, and then after the first quarter I thought we defended pretty well, too.”

Van Gundy started James Ennis over Johnson in part to get a little more shooting with a first unit lacking perimeter balance with Ish Smith starting and since the Blake Griffin trade, but also to get Johnson’s overall impact and force with a struggling second unit. And he wanted Johnson in the game when Milwaukee went to its bench, now led by Jabari Parker, and brought Antetokounmpo back to anchor its second unit.

“Trying to get a balance there of shooting in the starting lineup and energy in the second unit,” Van Gundy said. “We’ll see. It worked tonight.”

Griffin threatened a triple-double in 25 minutes and might have gotten there but didn’t play after exiting with four minutes left in the third quarter. He finished with eight points, nine boards and seven assists despite missing his first six shots. Drummond had 15 points to go with his 16 boards and Reggie Bullock scored 12 of his 16 in the first quarter.

But the bench produced four double-figures scorers in Johnson, Moreland, Dwight Buycks and Langston Galloway.

“Stanley coming in, Eric playing so well and Lang knocking down shots – it was big for those guys to come in and help us off the bench to bring that great energy,” Bullock said.

“I thought our starters played much better defensively when they came back in the second quarter than they had in the first quarter,” Van Gundy said. “Their intensity picked up and I do think the bench’s play gives you something to point to and say, hey, we’ve got to play the same way they were playing out there. I don’t think there’s any question about that.”

The win leaves the Pistons three games back of Miami for the final playoff spot with 22 games to play as they head out for three games in four nights, including what seems like a virtual must-win game Saturday with the Heat.

“We’ve got, what? Twenty-one games left?” Johnson asked. “And we’re back what? Three games? We’ve got to get on it. There’s no sugar coating that. Everyone in the gym knows it. We know it. Y’all know it. It’s our job to do our job.”

Johnson certainly did his job in a runaway win, solidifying a bench unit that had gone from strength to glaring weakness. With a quarter of the season still ahead of them, it provided just enough hope to give them reason to think they might still making something of it yet.

FAST BREAKDOWN

Three quick observations from Wednesday night’s 110-87 win over the Milwaukee Bucks at Little Caesars Arena

1-SUFFOCATING D – The Pistons didn’t exactly awaken from their offensive slumber to pummel Milwaukee. They pummeled the Bucks because they pummeled them. The rebounding numbers: Pistons 57, Bucks 35. The Pistons shot less than 40 percent in the first half and still led by nine because they had 15 offensive rebounds and 16 more shot attempts. They shot 44 percent for the game, but their defense suffocated Milwaukee over the final three quarters as the Bucks shot 38 percent for the game after shooting 62 percent in the first quarter. Milwaukee led 29-20 with two minutes left in the first quarter in the midst of scoring on 10 straight possessions, but the Pistons outscored the Bucks 33-15 over the final 14 minutes of the first half. After making 13 of its first 19 shots, the Bucks finished the first half by making just 4 of 19. The Pistons stretched the lead to 20 late in the third quarter before the Bucks closed with a 5-0 run in the final seven seconds by forcing a turnover and turning it into two free throws and a 3-pointer via a clear-path foul on the Pistons, but the game got out of hand quickly in the fourth quarter. The win snapped a three-game losing streak for the Pistons as they head out for three games in four nights on the road at Orlando, Miami – a virtual must-win game with the Heat ahead of them for the final playoff berth – and Cleveland.

2-NEW STARTER – James Ennis drew his first start since joining the Pistons at the Feb. 8 trade deadline, sliding in at small forward with Stanley Johnson coming off the bench. Ennis finished with four points in 15 foul-plagued minutes, but it was Johnson who deserves the headlines. It was his best game since the surge he had in late January and early February, finishing with 19 points, six rebounds and four assists in 30 minutes. Johnson was the first substitute off of Stan Van Gundy’s bench, entering for Ennis with 3:27 left in the first quarter, and he had a huge impact on the game as the Pistons clamped down on Milwaukee’s offense at that point. Johnson should have had at least a few more assists off pinpoint passes. He also spent a good chunk of the night guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo and all but neutralized the Bucks All-Star, who finished just 11 points, three rebounds and two assists while shooting 5 of 13.

3-BETTER BENCH – Maybe it was the effect of having Stanley Johnson playing more minutes with the bench unit. Maybe it was the activity shown by Eric Morelan. Maybe it was the impact of Dwight Bucyks, in his second game since replacing Jameer Nelson as the point guard with the second unit. But the bench, so badly outplayed in losses to Boston and Charlotte coming out of the All-Star break, gave the Pistons a big boost, especially in the first half. Johnson was superb, but he had help. Eric Moreland established career highs in scoring (10) and rebounds (12). Four players off the bench scored in double figures for the Pistons with Johnson, Moreland, Buycks (12) and Langston Galloway (13), who played over Luke Kennard. The bench wound up outscoring Milwaukee’s second unit 63-30.

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