DETROIT – Can the season opener be a must-win game? Yeah, probably not. Felt that way for the Pistons at Little Caesars Arena, though. They came into and out of training camp feeling pretty good about themselves but there just wasn’t enough time – and certainly not enough time together – in a compressed preseason to know for sure.
Charlotte’s going to be one of the teams like the Pistons – like Miami and Milwaukee and a few others – trying to break into the top four of Cleveland, Boston, Washington and Toronto while holding off the rear to latch on to one of the eight precious playoff spots in the East.
So a win against one of those teams is big. To win against one of those teams on a night they’re missing two key players, Nic Batum and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, is essential. To win against such a team at home – and with all of the attendant hoopla surrounding the long-awaited return to the city – well, it was as close as it gets to the classic opening-night must win.
Here are a few random thoughts on what went into securing that 12-point win:
Stanley Johnson missed all 13 shots and led the Pistons in minutes played by a whopping six minutes over the next-closest player. He played 40-plus minutes. If he’d have hit half his shots and scored 15 points, he’d have been the star of the game for what he did at the defensive end. And he took good shots, too. I watched him after Wednesday’s shootaround do his shooting drills, as he always does with associate head coach Bob Beyer, and he was draining triples. He’ll be a better shooter this year. Dig a little deeper than shooting and you see why Stan Van Gundy has been consistently praising Johnson in preseason. The zero turnovers were noteworthy. So were the four steals. The chase-down offensive rebound with 1:23 to go that turned into Tobias Harris’ 3-pointer to seal the win encapsulated Johnson’s contributions.
Thirteen points, zero turnovers, eight assists for Reggie Jackson on 5 of 10 shooting – with two or three first-half misses of the sort he’ll make more often than not. He was best in the second half, a most encouraging sign on a night he played 27 minutes. Van Gundy isn’t going to ask him to go much longer than that most games, anyway. I still don’t think we’ll see vintage Jackson for a few weeks, but fears we’d never see that guy again are dissolving. Van Gundy remarked after the game about how this opening stretch – five games in eight nights – would be tough for Jackson. Get him through that in one piece and good things will follow.
Avery Bradley and Pistons fans are a love affair waiting to happen. The guy epitomizes the roll-up-your-sleeves, ask-no-quarter aura Detroiters have loved since the depths of my memory – the ’68 Tigers, the Bad Boys, the Yzerman-led Red Wings. And he’s one of those guys – it’s already clear – who rubs off on teammates. There’s a lot of reasons Boston seemed to maximize its roster these last three, four years, but it’s pretty clear that a big one was Bradley. Whatever his numbers end up being – and Wednesday night’s efficient 15 points (7 of 10 shooting) in 23 foul-plagued minutes you’d take 81 more times – won’t reflect his impact.
Surprised by Van Gundy’s decision to go with Henry Ellenson over Anthony Tolliver, not surprised by the call for Langston Galloway over Luke Kennard. Even Van Gundy after the game admitted he usually errs in favor of the veteran. I figured Tolliver’s more reliable 3-point shooting and more stout defense would break the tie with Ellenson, but Van Gundy’s hunches in both cases bore fruit. Ellenson and Galloway combined for 29 points to lead a bench unit that outscored Charlotte’s shorthanded bench 37-26 – an 11-point gap one off the margin of victory.
Impressed that Andre Drummond maintained his focus on a night scoring chances were few and far between. He only got to the foul line once, but made both free throws to validate the 16 of 20 preseason showing. As Van Gundy said after the game, he’ll need 100 free throws before there’s enough of a sample size to completely eradicate the possibility of the Hack-a-Dre tactic. But the preseason buzz from teammates and coaches that Drummond came back a more mature player with a previously unseen level of focus is holding true so far. And that version of Andre Drummond is a certified All-Star.
I remember during the height of the Goin’ to Work era when the Pistons beat Philadelphia in a first-round playoff series hearing 76ers coach Jim O’Brien after the game lamenting the difficulty in game planning for them. “Ask five different coaches who’s the MVP of this team and you might get five different answers,” he said. This team isn’t at the same level of potency just yet, of course, but in equality of contributions it might be approaching that level. Drummond, Bradley, Harris, Jackson and Johnson could all be their star of the game.
There could be a similar by-committee vibe with the bench. There’s a lot of shooting and scoring possibilities there with Ellenson and Galloway and three people who didn’t even play Wednesday: Tolliver, Kennard and the suspended Reggie Bullock. There are going to be nights Van Gundy has three or four shooters on the floor with his Ish Smith-led bench unit – Ellenson and Tolliver up front, any two of Bullock, Kennard and Galloway on the wings – and they’re all stroking it and the starters get to sit the whole fourth quarter and watch. That’ll get Little Caesars Arena rocking.