Orlando, Fla. — Stan Van Gundy saw the problem, but there wasn’t much he could do about it. Early in the fourth quarter of Thursday’s loss at Orlando, the Pistons watched as their deficit moved quickly from single digits to 13.
The reserves were in the game, in the midst of their woeful 3-for-22 shooting night, and he was itching to get the starters back in to try to stem the tide. Van Gundy waited to see if the bench group could turn things around.
Too late. The Magic made a few more shots and the lead grew.
It’s a continuing issue, the starters not playing well and the reserves unable to provide a lift. It spells trouble — and very often too big a hole at the end of games to dig out of.
“We only can play guys so many minutes. Even from my staff, I get the suggestions that we need to get Tobias (Harris) in with the second unit,” Van Gundy said after Friday’s practice in Orlando. “Is there a suggestion on when he should rest? It’s hard to play him with the first unit and second unit. When your bench is struggling, people want more minutes out of your starters.”
It’s a valid point, especially with the depth issues the Pistons have while two of their top scorers, Reggie Jackson and Avery Bradley, are out because of injuries. Where they would otherwise have more viable reserve options in Ish Smith and Luke Kennard, that pair is forced to start.
Depth has been one of the Pistons’ strengths, but another issue has been the domino effect of moving players around in the rotation because of injuries. Andre Drummond (38 minutes) and Tobias Harris (36 minutes) are the other top scoring options, but played above their season averages of about 33 minutes.
The quandary for Van Gundy is when to break his rotation because a game can get out of hand with the starters on the bench.
“We do have to experiment a little bit … Andre or Tobias, one of them is always going to be on the floor? If that’s the case, they’re not going to play together very much,” Van Gundy said. “It’s just not as easy as that. You have to see how the game is going. In the fourth quarter, the game got away from us in a three-minute stretch with our bench.”
Van Gundy said there would be some changes before Saturday’s matchup with the San Antonio Spurs, but they would not be as a result of the loss Thursday.
Van Gundy also was disappointed in the team’s defense in the first quarter. He said the team watched video of the first quarter Friday and the defensive malaise was apparent, letting them get easy shots.
“Our lack of a defensive disposition just allowed them to develop confidence early in the game,” he said. “Give them credit: they played well but our guys watched the first 15 possessions defensively today and there was basically no resistance.”
Though there were plenty of issues, Van Gundy pointed to one example: rookie Luke Kennard’s defense early. It’s been an issue at times this season, but seeing his intensity drop lately hasn’t helped.
“You don’t know what it is, if it’s fatigue mentally. We’re at 34 games; is that wearing on him? Is it that he’s getting comfortable with being in there every night?” Van Gundy said. “The best defense we’ve really seen out of him all year was coming off the west coast trip early in the year where he was inactive for all three games and he got after it hard for those next few games.
“Is it being comfortable in his role and not putting out as much? But he has not been as good as he’s capable of being. He can be a good defender and he’s not really bringing that to the table.”
Another area in which the Pistons struggled was backup point guard, where Langston Galloway got more minutes, as Ish Smith was promoted to the starting group. Galloway shot 1-of-9 from the field and didn’t look comfortable in running the offense in the move from shooting guard.
“I certainly think that’s part of it and it’s something we need to look at. I also didn’t think he brought very good energy to the game, which is rare for him,” Van Gundy said. “He usually goes at it pretty good, especially on the offensive end. Maybe playing there, he was thinking, more than playing, and that had a lot to do it.”
Spurs at Pistons
Tip-off: 7 Saturday, Little Caesars Arena, Detroit
Outlook: The Pistons (19-15) have lost three straight at home, but will again be without their starting backcourt of Reggie Jackson (sprained ankle) and Avery Bradley (groin). The Spurs won the first meeting, 96-93, on Dec. 4.