Niyo: Toughness becoming Pistons' top trait

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — LeBron James was talking tough Tuesday night.

Actually, he was talking about toughness, and the fact his Cavaliers — the defending Eastern Conference champs — seemed to be lacking in that area.

His coach, David Blatt, was saying much the same thing after watching the Cavaliers get outhustled and outworked and outrebounded at The Palace, where the Pistons rallied from a 13-point second-half deficit to hand Cleveland (8-3) its second consecutive loss.

Afterward, James groused about the Cavaliers being “too relaxed” and “too nice” — “We need to get tougher,” he said — while Blatt read from the same script.

“I didn’t think we displayed the kind of toughness,” the coach said, “that made us a team last year.”

Oddly, the Pistons did, which was something of a revelation for The Palace crowd, celebrating its first home win over James — with the Heat or Cavaliers — in nearly three years. And the Cavaliers postgame pouting — “We need to toughen up,” Blatt reiterated — probably felt like an affirmation of sorts for Stan Van Gundy, who had set out to do just that during the offseason.

Toughness was lacking in the Pistons last year, and in the handful of years before that, really, going all the way back to the last time this franchise made the playoffs in 2008-09. That’s also the last time the Pistons were above .500 this late in a season, which with a 6-5 record isn’t saying much.

But that says a lot, if you think about it. And what the Pistons are doing now certainly is worth noting. They’re ranked in the top 10 in the NBA in defensive efficiency, even after a brutal road trip out West. They’re also fifth in rebounding margin, fifth in opponent turnover percentage, and only a handful of teams have allowed fewer dunks.

Plenty of hustle

In short, they’re no longer pushovers, with center Andre Drummond emerging as one of the league’s truly dominant big men, and a supporting cast that’s cut from a different cloth — by design — thanks to Van Gundy’s roster alterations.

Tuesday, we saw more evidence of that in a game the Pistons almost surely would have lost a year ago. They shot 43 percent, hit seven 3-pointers and trailed by double digits late in the third quarter. Yet, they refused to give in, or give up. And on a night when the Cavaliers didn’t score any second-chance points, the Pistons gave themselves plenty.

It was Reggie Jackson who forced the issue early with Drummond in the pick-and-roll game, setting the right tone coming off a disappointing finish to a six-game West Coast swing. And it was Jackson who sealed the win at the free-throw line late.

But it was also Ersan Ilyasova flexing his muscles — and flashing his determination — as he ripped a rebound away from Cleveland’s Tristan Thompson with 22.9 seconds left and the Pistons clinging to a 98-97 lead. And it was some determined defense from Marcus Morris on James in the second half as the Pistons clawed their way back.

“I thought he battled him well,” Van Gundy said of Morris, who helped limit James to seven points on 3-for-8 shooting after halftime. “He’s got some size, he’s got great toughness, he’s not gonna back down. You’re not gonna stop LeBron … but he didn’t give him anything easy.”

Drummond playing harder

That’s slowly becoming an identity for this group, led by Drummond, whose improved conditioning and smarter play — fewer fouls, more minutes — have his motor running at a different gear.

So much so, in fact, that Drummond’s teammates were teasing him after Tuesday’s 25-point, 18-board performance, pointing out he had been held under his season rebounding average. He is averaging 18.9 rebounds; that’s six more than the next best in the NBA. (Clippers forward DeAndre Jordan is averaging 12.9.)

“I think you see it in Andre, he’s playing consistently harder,” said Van Gundy, whose team didn’t get its sixth win until the day after Christmas a year ago.

“And then we added a lot of toughness. Stanley (Johnson) in the draft, and Aron Baynes and Ilyasova and Morris — all of those guys are really tough, hard-playing guys. So I think they’ve raised our level of intensity and toughness, along with the guys we had coming back.

“It was a conscious effort to add those kind of guys, and they’ve added a lot for us.”

Good thing, too, because the Central Division looks like one of the toughest in the league. We’re only a few weeks into the season, but the Central is 25-15 against the rest of the NBA, and all five teams look like legitimate playoff contenders.

It’s not just Cleveland and Chicago now, though those two teams sit atop the Eastern Conference standings at the moment. The Pistons already have beaten both. And as good as the first one felt — that overtime win over the Bulls on Oct. 30 — this last one felt even better.

“That’s a team that was just in the (NBA) Finals,” Drummond said, “and for us to come in and really fight back and grind out a win, it shows our fight.”

It shows their progress, as well.