Stan Van Gundy breaks down the Pistons victory over the Pacers. Rod Beard, The Detroit News
Detroit — Andre Drummond raised the question before the season started, laughing as he talked about the elephant — or maybe you’d call it a giraffe — in the Pistons’ locker room.
“Who’s going to stop a 7-foot-4 dude that has soft hands like that?” Drummond said. “I mean, what do you do with that?”
That’s still something his coach Stan Van Gundy hasn’t quite figured out, finding a way to fit Boban Marjanovic into his rotation. Or even into a game, for that matter. But Wednesday night against the Indiana Pacers — in a game in which the Pistons bench again played a sizeable role in a 114-97 victory — the NBA’s tallest player finally got an extended stretch of playing time.
And while the results were mixed, the reactions were what we’ve come to expect.
When Marjanovic put back a Tobias Harris miss with just under a minute left in the first half Wednesday, grabbing an offensive rebound and laying it in left-handed over a helpless Al Jefferson, the Pistons bench erupted. Marjanovic has a 9-foot-7 standing reach, and he barely left the ground on the play. But Avery Bradley jumped straight out of his seat to celebrate, turning to high-five Ish Smith, who’d done the same, while Anthony Tolliver roared and flexed his approval and rookie Luke Kennard laughed like a teenager.
Finally, it was “Boban Time,” and everyone — players and fans alike — was loving it.
“That’s part of a winning culture, guys knowing when their time is and being ready for it when their name is called,” said Tobias Harris, who led the Pistons in scoring again, finishing with a game-high 23 points and eight rebounds. “Boban gave us a huge lift tonight, and it was good to see him out there helping us out.”
The Pistons were playing shorthanded, with both Stanley Johnson (hip flexor) and Jon Leuer (ankle) out of the lineup. Van Gundy inserted Reggie Bullock into the starting five, and when Avery Bradley picked up two quick fouls, rookie Luke Kennard — fresh off a 26-point outing Sunday with Grand Rapids in the Gatorade League — was the first man off the bench.
But then Drummond picked up his second foul and had to take a seat as well. His backup, Eric Moreland, had trouble with Al Jefferson, the Pacers’ 6-foot-10, 280-pound veteran center who got on a roll, scoring seven points on three consecutive possessions in less than a minute.
That brought Marjanovic off the bench and out of his warm-ups. It also brought a noticeable cheer from the Little Caesars Arena crowd as the fan favorite checked in for just the second time in the regular season — and the first time at home.
This isn’t easy, jumping into the fray like that. Marjanovic hadn’t played in nearly three weeks, and even then — in the Oct. 21 win over the Knicks in New York — he’d only played 4 minutes.
“You can spend three hours every day on the court (in practice),” he said, “but it’s not the same.”
Still, he knew this night might be his chance, with Leuer in street clothes and the Pacers in town for the second night of a back-to-back. Jefferson’s one of the rare matchups in which Van Gundy feels comfortable putting Marjanovic — and his defensive mobility issues — on the floor. The Serbian giant played 21 minutes against the Pacers in the preseason — much of it against Jefferson — and finished that game with 14 points and five rebounds.
Last season, Marjanovic was stuck behind Aron Baynes and played sparingly. But the rare glimpses were tantalizing. He had 15 points and 19 rebounds in 22 minutes in a game against Charlotte while Baynes was injured. And when Van Gundy gave him some run at the end of the season with the Pistons out of contention, Marjanovic averaged 15.8 points and 11.3 rebounds over four games.
That’s part of the reason his coach calls Marjanovic “a wild card” who can be “one of the most indefensible offensive forces in the game.” And he showed flashes of it again in this one, scoring nine points and grabbing four rebounds to go with a blocked shot in 5 1/2 minutes in the second quarter as the Pistons turned an eight-point deficit into a 59-52 halftime lead they’d never relinquish.
“We went with Eric first because he’d played two really good games, but Al’s just a really, really tough matchup,” Van Gundy said. “I mean, Boban had trouble defending him, too. But Boban can go back down at the other end and get some things done. And I thought he gave us a good lift.”
Tallest man standing
That’s been a consistent theme throughout the first month of this NBA season for the Pistons, who own the second-best record in the Eastern Conference and a three-game lead over Cleveland atop the Central Division. Drummond’s assertive and energetic effort — he finished with a season-high 21 rebounds Wednesday — and a much more fluid offense have played a big part in Detroit’s quick start.
But so has the team’s impressive depth, and with Marjanovic getting his chance Wednesday, Van Gundy’s happy to report he has made good on one promise thus far this season.
“It’s funny, because we had talked today about that, about everybody getting an opportunity,” he said. “And we’re only 11 games in and literally all 14 guys have made significant contributions at one point or another.
“We said that to them going into (the season), and, you know, players hear it all the time: ‘Everybody’s gonna get their opportunity’ and ‘You’ve got to stay ready all the time.’ But we’re only 11 games in and it has come true. I think they know, there’s some guys that are gonna be out there every night and some that won’t be. But everybody is gonna be important to us as the year goes on.”
Wednesday night, it was the last man standing — the tallest one, too — and he delivered.
“And he came out and did what a professional is supposed to do,” Drummond said. “He played the game the right way, and great things came his way.”