A little progress pays off for a Pistons team that never saw themselves in their record
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images
LOS ANGELES – Stan Van Gundy wasn't going to walk into the Pacific surf and keep going if the Pistons had lost to Phoenix and Sacramento to extend their winning streak to a franchise-record 15 games.
Because he never believed the Pistons were as bad as their record showed through 22 games, when they were 3-19.
Neither is he about to spend his lone day off on the current three-game Western road swing lighting cigars with hundred-dollar bills just because the Pistons banked two wins against the Suns and Kings – the first consecutive road wins for the Pistons against Western Conference teams since Nov. 12-14 of 2010 when they beat the Clippers and Kings.
Because he doesn't believe the planets have suddenly aligned and the Pistons are destined to make up all the ground they gave away by going four weeks between wins.
But he does see progress. He sees a team that is beginning to grasp its defensive concepts and employ them more consistently, with trust that teammates to the left and right will carry out their assignments faithfully. He sees an offense that's added an integral piece, Jodie Meeks, and it's not entirely coincidental that the Pistons are 2-0 and have averaged 100 points with Meeks in the lineup.
Maybe just as essential to the belief that a corner has been rounded is what Van Gundy hasn't seen: head hanging, pouting, defeatism.
As the losses piled up, Van Gundy resisted any urge – against public clamoring – to do something, anything. It would have been one thing if the Pistons had been getting routinely blasted, but that has never been the case.
As he said the day after the loss to Portland brought the Pistons within a game of tying the franchise record of 14 straight defeats, "There's always this natural assumption that because one thing is not working that there's absolutely something else that will. But you've still got to play the people you think give you the best chance to win. I understand the feeling: Well, that's not working, so try something else, like you don't know what they're going to do. We see it every day. We do have a determination on guys, so you try to put your best people out."
The difficulty was that his best people weren't always playing their best, or not enough of them were firing on all cylinders on the same night. He said you need four or five and instead were getting one or two. The injury to Meeks – signed with the full expectation that he'd be one of his best guys – loomed large over the early-season struggles simply because he's a shooter, a scorer, for a team struggling mightily to shoot anywhere close to respectably.
A two-game sample size doesn't give them a ton to go on, but the Meeks effect sure seems positive. Even as he went 2 of 9 (0 of 4 from the 3-point line) at Sacramento on Saturday, 24 hours after playing his first game since the preseason opener more than two months ago, Meeks' constant motion and the threat of his shot gets defenses on the move.
Maybe that's all the space Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond needed to turn all of those frustrating near-misses at the rim into makes. On second thought, forget "all of" – just "some of" or "half of" would have made the difference in four, five or six of the many Pistons games that came down to the last three minutes of the season's first six weeks.
As much as the physical difference Meeks' presence makes, the psychological boost of adding a weapon of his stature helped lighten the mood of a team that hadn't shown any signs of caving but needed some good news to change the narrative.
And after shooting less than 40 percent in six of seven games before this road trip, they've shot 47 and 44 in their last two games. For once, it was the other team putting up the ugly number, Sacramento shooting 35.5 percent.
"We're shooting it a little bit better," Van Gundy said, allowing himself a slight grin. "Still not great, but a little bit better."
That was always his belief, though, even at the depths of 3-19 – that the gap between the Pistons and average wasn't nearly that wide. They just needed to get a little bit better and go from there. And that's where they are now, finally.