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Niyo: Pistons look ready to rock with new lineup

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — They've got one eye on the future, another on the present. And over there on the bench Sunday at The Palace, the past had no choice but to sit and watch and wonder how they all came together like this.

But in a season full of comings and goings for this rebuilding Pistons franchise, Sunday's matinee date with the Washington Wizards might've been the oddest coupling yet.

Arguably the most satisfying result, too, as the new-look Pistons turned a queasy debut and an uneasy homecoming into a runaway 106-89 victory that pushed them within a game of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

It started with new point guard Reggie Jackson barfing near the home team's bench. It ended with the fans chanting Tayshaun Prince's name, and then Prince venting just a bit about the raw deal that brought him back here in the twilight of his career.

In between, there were more than a few highlights for the home team, though, with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope lighting up from long range, tying a career high with six 3-pointers, and owner Tom Gores whooping it up from his courtside seat, tossing free T-shirts into the crowd as he celebrated.

Afterward, coach Stan Van Gundy had nothing but praise for his team, and a roster that has been put through the ringer this season, from that awful 5-23 start and the decision to waive Josh Smith to Brandon Jennings' gut-wrenching injury and last week's trade-deadline frenzy.

"For them to have gone through all that … and just continue to go out there and work at it and play hard," Van Gundy said, shaking his head — in admiration, for a change — "I mean, you've got to give them all the credit in the world."

Jackson gets it all out

Jackson, the centerpiece of Thursday's deadline drama, got a pregame pep talk from Gores, the owner who is expected to make him a hefty long-term contract after this season.

"He let me know that he believed in me, in my ability and just in me as a person," said Jackson, the fourth-year pro — and pending restricted free agent — who was acquired from Oklahoma City.

But an hour later, Jackson was clearly pressing, as he missed his first eight shots — a couple didn't even draw iron early in the second quarter — and managed just five points and two assists in 17 first-half minutes.

And for a guy who'd made such a big deal about wanting this opportunity — a chance to be a starter, and a star, running his own team — this was all a bit too much to handle. When Van Gundy finally brought him out of the game late in the first quarter, Jackson hunched over on the sideline and started heaving.

"I was out there almost hyperventilating," Jackson admitted later.

It got so bad, he said the training staff had to remind him to breathe through his nose, while his teammates kept reminding him to "just relax and do your thing."

"As confident as I am at times, I was just trying to be too perfect," he said. "I just kept putting pressure on myself."

A 3-pointer to end the first half helped ease that somewhat, and then Jackson helped spark a run early in the third as the Pistons buckled down defensively and seized control of the game.

"In the second half, he looked like the guy we traded for," joked Van Gundy, who got contributions from just about everyone Sunday.

Except for the other guy they traded for last week, though that was to be expected. Prince arrived Saturday, passed his physical and was in uniform on the bench Sunday. But he won't play until Tuesday, after he's had a day to practice with his new team. Or his old team, as it were.

But that didn't stop The Palace crowd from chanting for him in the fourth quarter — "We want Prince!" they cheered — as the Pistons salted the game away.

Prince adjusting

He's still bitter about the way his initial departure from Detroit was handled — traded to Memphis without notice, Prince said, back in January 2013. ("But that's a story for back then," he said.) And now he sounds miffed about all the "miscommunication" that surrounded this latest move, which sent him from Boston back to Detroit, in exchange for Pistons reserves Jonas Jerebko and Gigi Datome.

With the trade deadline looming last week, Prince figured he'd stay in Boston with the likelihood he'd reach a buyout agreement that would allow him to join a contender — the Los Angeles Clippers and the Portland Trail Blazers were prime candidates — for a playoff run. So he was surprised when Celtics coach Brad Stevens told him he'd been traded prior to practice Thursday morning in Sacramento. And he was stunned to learn, as his phone started blowing up, just where he was headed.

"I was like, 'Wait a minute, hold on: I didn't just get traded to Detroit, did I?" Prince said

He was, and this is where he'll stay until season's end, as Van Gundy reiterated again Sunday. Prince understands that, of course, and though he's obviously not thrilled — "I'm happy to be playing basketball," was his initial reply, when asked if he's happy to be back in Detroit — the coach and the player have talked through all of that.

"I think what happened is, quite honestly, he expected one thing and it didn't happen," Van Gundy said. "That takes a little bit of time to adjust. But we talked and I think he's ready to go and will be a big help to us down the stretch."

If that seems like a stretch, well, so be it. This season, with all of its twists and turns, promises a little more drama yet for the Pistons. But after the last few years of drudgery, that's actually an encouraging thought.