Beard: Smith hot, but don’t expect changing of guard
Toronto — Reserve point guard Ish Smith seemed surprised to see a couple of media members waiting by his locker in Air Canada Centre on Sunday night.
He shouldn’t have been.
Smith had 15 points, five rebounds and five assists and was one of the key cogs in the Pistons’ come-from-behind, 102-101 victory over the Toronto Raptors. He played the last 19 minutes and more than anything else, just made the right plays.
Trailing by two on the Pistons’ final possession, Smith drove from the right wing and when the defender stayed with him, Smith found Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in the right corner for the go-ahead 3-pointer. It capped a monumental comeback, from a 16-point deficit to start the fourth quarter.
Smith had a plus-26 rating, while starter Reggie Jackson was minus-25. He’s scored in double figures in seven of the last eight games — averaging 11.5 points and five assists in that span — and is hitting 66 percent from the field, plus 43 percent on 3-pointers.
Those aren’t quite starters’ numbers, but Smith certainly has been on a hot streak for the past two weeks. It has some fans calling for Smith to start over Jackson, who is averaging 8.9 points and 5.5 assists, but only hitting 32 percent from the field and 19 percent beyond the arc.
The numbers are telling, but it doesn’t mean that coach Stan Van Gundy is going to make changes to the starting lineup as a knee-jerk reaction. Smith played 31 minutes — and Jackson 17 — as Van Gundy sensed that he couldn’t stay with the status quo in simply playing Jackson because he’s the starter.
“(Moving forward) we’ll see how it goes. What you try to do is play the unit that gives you the best chance to win,” Van Gundy said. “A lot of times, you make mistakes on that and screw it up. I’ve certainly made my share.
“I don’t go into games saying a guy is going to get X amount of minutes, no matter how he plays. You’re just playing to win.”
Van Gundy has gone off-script a couple of times this season and in sensing times when Smith is the better play, he’s going with his gut. Jackson’s name has come up in trade rumors in recent weeks and it likely will a few more times, with the trade deadline looming Feb. 23. General manager Jeff Bower likely is listening to offers, but with the knee tendinitis putting a damper on Jackson’s season, the trade value isn’t there.
What’s more likely to happen is Van Gundy will stick with Jackson through the ups and downs the remainder of the season and hope for a bounce-back next year.
For what it’s worth, Smith isn’t angling for the starting role, which he had for the first 21 games that Jackson missed. The Pistons were 11-10 during that span — not sterling numbers — but the offense had a different flow.
For now, he’s settled in as the backup and just trying to maintain that consistent production off the bench.
“It’s cool; it’s very comfortable. My job is to come off the bench and keep it going,” Smith said. “Bring that energy, that burst. Find a little bit of a rhythm.”
The Monday Drive makes the return trip to The States and has put extreme vetting to a few observations from the past week:
■Pushing the right buttons: Van Gundy gets plenty of flak for his substitution patterns, but he played Sunday’s game almost to perfection, sensing that Tobias Harris and Smith would bet better down the stretch than Jon Leuer and Jackson. It worked masterfully. And when Aron Baynes was going well, Van Gundy stayed with him. He’s admitted mistakes, but he should get credit for Sunday’s win too.
■Tracking Stanley: All the worry about Stanley Johnson’s development was a bit premature. He wasn’t scoring at the same clip as last season, but his game is coming together nicely in the grander scheme. A puzzle isn’t always built from the corner pieces in — sometimes, working from the inside out is just as effective. Johnson’s scoring is there; the plan is to slowly bring him along until the pieces fit together.
■Sixth man: Moving Harris to a reserve role wasn’t a popular decision, and Van Gundy said Harris balked at it — and continues to dislike it — but it’s worked well. His game works well with Smith, and Harris can be a big-time scorer with the reserves. The eye test just shows that the Pistons are better that way.
■Not winded: Leuer has played a bigger role this season than at any point in his career. He insists that he’s not hitting the proverbial wall from the additional minutes, but his production has been up and down a bit more in the past few weeks. Adjusting his playing time, along with increases for Johnson likely will be the tweak to ensure that he stays fresh for the remainder of the season.
■Second wind: After some early-season struggles, Marcus Morris is making a good push, scoring in double figures in 20 of the past 22 games. He’s averaged 15.7 points and is shooting 35 percent on 3-pointers in that span. His defense was stout on the final possession Sunday, as he stood his ground and didn’t foul on the final shot by the Raptors’ DeMar DeRozan.