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Niyo: Pistons show grit, character in 2-0 start

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — The spacing is better on the court, at least.

It’ll take some time before the seats get overly crowded. And it’ll take more than a win or two from the Pistons, given what they’ve done here the last several years.

But Wednesday night’s home opener, though hardly a thing of beauty, certainly was no buzzkill as the Pistons shook off a slow start, ignored some tired legs and managed to beat one of the league’s better defensive teams at its own game in the final minute, fending off the Utah Jazz, 92-87, at The Palace.

That’s two wins in two nights for Stan Van Gundy’s retooled roster. And while it’s also too soon to say much about what any of this means, it’s an encouraging start, nonetheless.

“I think anytime you win, your confidence grows,” Van Gundy said. “And your trust in each other grows.”

And trust me, the growth isn’t hard to see here, whether it’s Andre Drummond hitting his free throws (8-for-11) or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope making winning plays at both ends of the court late or newcomer Marcus Morris asserting himself with consecutive solid performances.

The way his team played down the stretch Wednesday certainly left the Pistons coach with something to grumble about. Besides the NBA schedule matrix that handed his team a back-to-back to begin the season, that is. But Van Gundy couldn’t argue with the effort, or the intensity.

“This team has a lot of fight,” Drummond said. “We’ve got a lot of fighters.”

Early challenges

They fought themselves as they coughed up an 86-80 lead in the final few minutes, committing turnovers on three of four possessions. Van Gundy, whose team is shooting 39 percent from the field thus far, blamed himself for not being assertive enough from the bench on one of those. But then he asked his floor leader, Reggie Jackson, to assert himself on the next.

And Jackson responded, freed by Drummond’s screen for a driving layup with 17 seconds left that put the Pistons back up, 88-87. Caldwell-Pope’s rebound and two free throws with 9.4 seconds left — and his blocked shot of an Alec Burks 3-pointer shortly after — helped seal the deal, sparking fist pumps and screams from his teammates.

“I like the character we’ve shown,” Van Gundy said. “I like the attitude we’ve had in games even when things haven’t gone well.”

But that they’ve ended well? Well, that’s kind of a big deal, the small sample size notwithstanding. Not just because this is the Pistons’ first 2-0 start since 2008-09, the last year they made the playoffs. Or because these two wins came on the road against an Atlanta team that won 60 games last season and at home against a Utah team that’ll contend for a playoff spot in the West.

But also because the Pistons are facing a daunting early schedule. Chicago is in town Friday, followed by Indiana and then a six-game trip out west. In fact, 10 of the Pistons’ 15 games in November are on the road.

“So we knew what this first part of the season was gonna be,” Van Gundy said.

And they know they simply can’t afford another miserable start. The Pistons were 3-14 by the time December rolled around last season. Two years ago, they were 6-10. In 2012, they were 5-12 after an 0-8 start. In 2010 and ’11 they were 6-12.

So, yes, after all the changes in the last 10 months, this is a welcome change as well.

After pregame introductions Wednesday, and one of the Dave Bing-narrated Pistons promo videos, it was Drummond grabbing the microphone at midcourt and welcoming the fans back. He finished with a hopeful message, “We’re shootin’ for the playoffs.”

Owner Tom Gores wasn’t making any promises in that regard when he met briefly with the media before the game. But he’s confident this team finally is on the right track, thanks to the “new chemistry.”

“I feel right now like my vision is able to walk the talk, because of the people on the ground,” he said.

Never too young

Gores, in his fifth year as owner, raved about this summer’s other free-agent addition, bringing longtime NBA agent Arn Tellem into the fold as the new vice chairman for Palace Sports & Entertainment.

Gores joked that Tellem’s hiring was the talk of last week’s preseason league meetings in New York, where “most of the owners were wondering, ‘How the heck did we get Arn?’ … He’s probably the most renowned NBA agent ever. He knows everybody in basketball. And we convinced him to come to Detroit.”

The fans will take some more convincing here, I’m sure. And that’s more than fair after the repetitive 50-loss seasons.

“Look, I mean, the biggest thing I believe in is what Stan is doing,” Gores said. “You know the tough year we had last year. … We had our 5-23 start, and we moved a lot of players around, and we needed a reset. I’ve always said, it’s patience with progress. I think we’re making tremendous progress. I expect this team to be a championship team. I mean, this is why we’re here.”

But how soon? Honestly, that’s a question for another day, or another year. The core of this roster is still cutting its teeth in the NBA, a lot like the Utah team that was in town Wednesday.

But Gores had a different message for his team when it met Sunday night before heading to Atlanta to start the regular season.

“I don’t want young to be an excuse,” said Gores, who now owns 100 percent of the Pistons, having bought out the 49-percent minority ownership stake from his Platinum Equity firm last month. “I actually told the players myself that, ‘Look, I started a company when I was very young.’ And everybody said, ‘Well, geez, you’re too young to start a company.’ And it’s just like being too young to win a championship. So, no excuses. I expect a lot out of this team.”

The season’s still very young, obviously. But he can’t ask for much more than this to start.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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