Niyo: Harris could be Pistons' playoff ticket

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — No one wants to pour cold water on a good time, least of all the new guest at the party.

But for Tobias Harris, it felt great last week, getting soaked by his playful new teammate, Andre Drummond, during a postgame interview following the Pistons’ rout of the Philadelphia 76ers.

It was Harris’ second game as a starter since the trade that brought him to Detroit from Orlando. And, not coincidentally, it was the second win in what is now a season-best four-game streak for the Pistons as they head to San Antonio (ESPN, 8 p.m.) determined to turn this month into a playoff March.

So, sure, this was the kind of unexpected cold shower a guy could get used to.

“Winning makes a lot of things feel good,” Harris said Tuesday, laughing after a post-practice promotional shoot for his new employer. “And I think for a team that has a lot of young players that have the same goal — and that’s just to win — it’s a good chemistry we’re building here. It’s a good fit for a lot of guys on this team.”

Perhaps none more so than Harris, the versatile 23-year-old forward acquired from the Magic before the trade deadline in exchange for Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova. And as Harris gets comfortable in Detroit, it’s looking more and more like he just might be the piece that finally puts this playoff puzzle together for the Pistons this spring.

This current roll, which hits a huge roadblock tonight in San Antonio, where the Spurs are 28-0 this season, has Stan Van Gundy’s team squarely back in the race in the Eastern Conference, in a virtual four-way tie for sixth in the standings prior to Tuesday’s games. Two of those wins have come against the top two teams in the East: Cleveland and Toronto.

And it hasn’t gone unnoticed that all five Pistons starters have scored in double figures in the last four games, with Harris averaging 16.3 points and six rebounds per game while shooting 51 percent from the field, including 46.2 percent from 3-point range.

‘He’s really efficient’

“He has been easy to insert with the other guys,” said Stan Van Gundy, whose team has played without key frontcourt reserves in Stanley Johnson and Anthony Tolliver. “I mean, he’s got an offensive game where he’s really efficient: He scores without having to shoot the ball or try to score every time he’s got it. He’s been willing to move the ball along with everybody else. And I just think his whole manner — guys enjoy playing with him, and I think he’s enjoyed playing with them.”

That may not have always been the case in Orlando, where Harris didn’t seem to fit new coach Scott Skiles’ plans, even after signing a four-year, $64 million contract extension last summer. But it’s certainly the case in Detroit, where the 6-foot-9, 235-pound Harris is exactly what Van Gundy needed to continue his roster overhaul, building a team that can spread the floor around center Drummond and ultimately thrive in the ever-evolving NBA.

Pistons� tall order: Beat Spurs in San Antonio

The “stretch four” — a power forward capable of stretching defenses with his shooting — is being replaced by the “playmaking” four these days, what with so many teams favoring smaller lineups and switching defensively to counteract persistent pick-and-roll offenses.

In Ilyasova, a player the Pistons picked up for practically nothing last summer, Van Gundy had more of the former. Now he’s got the latter, and you can already sense it’s making his life easier as he tries to unlock his young team’s offensive potential.

“I mean, I think Tobias, I don’t think there’s much limit as to where he can go,” the Pistons’ coach said. “I think he can be an 18-20-point-a-game guy because of his versatility. Smaller guys are gonna have trouble with him in the post, bigger guys are gonna have a lot of trouble with him off the dribble. And he’ll continue to get better. I think all our guys will continue to get better.”

Starting with Jackson

How quickly they do likely will determine whether the Pistons can end that six-year postseason drought six weeks from now. And it all starts with Reggie Jackson, obviously, because as he goes, so go the Pistons. The point guard remains a high-usage ringleader for Van Gundy’s team, ranking fifth in the NBA in time of possession and second in dribbles per touch. And that won’t change anytime soon.

But as his coach noted Tuesday, Jackson has been willing to give the ball up earlier in possessions lately, with Harris being one of the primary outlets, particularly in transition. That wasn’t an option before with Ilyasova, who’s now playing limited minutes off the bench in Orlando, nor is it with Tolliver, his primary backup and another traditional stretch four currently idled by injury.

“And I think when the ball gets in other people’s hands early, everybody gets a little more unselfish,” Van Gundy said. “Because there’s a confidence the ball could come back to you. The ball’s not sticking as much.”

Even in the half-court offense, you’ll notice that difference, as Harris offers another pick-and-roll option, with Jackson or with Drummond. That’s a role the newcomer is eager to expand as he gets more comfortable in Detroit. In the meantime, though, he’s happy just to help set a better tempo each night — the Pistons had a season-high 28 assists Sunday against Toronto — before hitting the showers.

“Once you’re just out there having fun, the ball’s moving and guys are making plays — unselfish plays,” Harris said. “It goes a long way.”

All the way to the playoffs? Time will tell, and the next two weeks will have plenty to say about that. But the way the Pistons are having fun on the court, the party may just be getting started.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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