Auburn Hills — Brandon Jennings was admittedly nervous about the team’s first game without someone he called a “father figure,” coach Maurice Cheeks, who was fired Sunday.
Cheeks had been critical in Jennings’ development, as the two point guards had a connection on and off the floor. So not only was Jennings saddened by the sudden dismissal, he was wondering about where his game would go, as he felt like he was turning a corner as a point guard.
“Cheeks, he was like a father figure to me,” Jennings said. “He’s definitely going to be missed. But this is the NBA, so I know how that goes.”
The NBA is a business, and the business at hand called for one of the best and most disciplined teams to visit The Palace Monday in the Spurs.
Jennings played another complete game, with 21 points, six assists, four rebounds and two steals in 30 minutes, as the Pistons won their fifth of seven games, and fifth straight at The Palace.
“I definitely think it was another game, another continuation,” Jennings said. “We won four out of six, so as long as we keep playing (a) fast pace, we’ll be good.”
It was a quieter game than the one he played Saturday, in what turned out to be Cheeks’ farewell as Pistons coach. Jennings scored 35 with 12 assists against Denver, but the recent turnaround wasn’t enough to keep Cheeks’ job, as owner Tom Gores fired Cheeks after 50 games.
He didn’t feel Cheeks was the sole reason or even the main reason for the Pistons’ struggles, his personal feelings for Cheeks aside. Jennings spoke with Cheeks Sunday after Jennings heard of the move, but he wouldn’t disclose contents of the conversation, only that “it’s between me and Cheeks. It was good, nothing negative.”
“It’s always a collective unit. To be honest, we weren’t doing our jobs either,” Jennings said. “That’s why we we’re in the position we’re in now. With the talent we have, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be in the playoff (hunt).”
Now he’s listening to another voice in interim coach John Loyer, who wants Jennings to be aggressive, in the same manner Cheeks pressed Jennings. His five-game stretch where he’s averaging 24.6 points and 8.8 assists on 43 percent shooting and 44 percent from three is amongst his best as a Piston.
But he won’t have Cheeks pulling him aside during games, no more two hour film sessions.
“Chauncey (Billups) is still here. He’s a guy I talk to all the time,” Jennings said. “I’m still learning. I’m back to having fun, instead of taking everything so personal. I’m just hooping.”
The Pistons outscored the Spurs, 67-48, in the middle two quarters, turning a competitive game into a near rout where the adrenaline seemed to carry the team through an emotional day.
“I only thought there was a three-minute period to where they (Spurs) showed more energy, more determination than us,” interim coach John Loyer said. “You show determination, hustle for 45 of 48 minutes, you’re going to be pretty successful most nights.”
Josh Smith said the team’s approach of sharing the ball, as all five starters scored in double figures, helped facilitate the energy on defense.
“Certain events happened that are beyond our control, but we were able to come out and focus on playing basketball,” said Smith, who had 12 points and six rebounds. “We came out with a big win against a great team.”
Paying his respects
The dean of NBA coaches, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, didn’t want to comment on whether 50 games was enough for the Pistons to assess if Cheeks was fit for the job, but was certainly surprised when he heard of Cheeks’ firing.
“I always feel badly when a coach gets fired,” Popovich said. “It’s part of the fraternity I’m in.”
I know Mo personally. He’s a great guy and I feel badly for him.”