New York — It’s only a three-game sample size but the Pistons’ 2-1 start feels very much like Bizarro World.
In Saturday night’s 111-107 victory over the New York Knicks, the Pistons overcame a 21-point second-quarter deficit.
That in itself isn’t much of a surprise, but how they’ve gotten it done during their start has been reminiscent of Superman’s arch nemesis. They had lost four straight at Madison Square Garden and in years past, might have packed it in with such a huge margin.
They didn’t this time. They soldiered up and chipped away. After they took a 96-90 lead in the fourth quarter, the Knicks scored three straight 3-pointers. Still, the Pistons showed some moxie. Add to that win a double-digit comeback that fell short against the Washington Wizards on Friday — and this team looks weirdly different.
Andre Drummond is making free throws — all of them. Reggie Jackson isn’t burning through the shot clock with his dribbling, circulating the ball and playing much better defense. Stanley Johnson is playing under control and Avery Bradley is providing steady veteran leadership. Coach Stan Van Gundy is not only playing his young guys — but well, everybody.
It’s Bizarro World.
“Anybody watching us can see a difference from what they had seen a year ago, in terms of the spirit and energy and fight — I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” Van Gundy said Saturday. “To me, it’s some of the guys coming back, taking greater pride and understanding. We’ve seen Reggie, Andre and Stanley step up a lot more in terms of that. Avery has had a lot to do with it. They watch him every day in practice and it raises everybody’s level.”
Bradley, acquired in an offseason trade with the Boston Celtics, has motivated Jackson to play better defense, just by his mere presence. Jackson is getting through screens better and seems to have energy on that end of the court — a surprising development, considering his past performance and the summer hiatus he had to ease the pain of his tendinitis.
Having Bradley and Johnson on the wings to blanket the tougher scorers lets Jackson take the third option, but he’s visibly accepting the challenge head-on.
“(The difference) is Avery,” Jackson said. “It’s a little bit of getting to know how everybody plays defense and them hounding me about getting better and taking pride in it.
“They allow you to improve. Dre is a better defender and it’s helping. I have guys around me who do a good job on defense and they allow me to get up there and try to get pressure on the ball and they make up for the mistakes I do make.”
What’s more astounding is that Drummond is 6-of-6 at the free-throw line. In the regular season. After going 16-of-20 in the preseason, Drummond’s turnaround looks real. Van Gundy said his assistant coaches suggested having Drummond shoot the free throws for a technical foul Saturday.
They weren’t joking.
“It changes everything because I can have him in the game at the end. The sample is small, but you can watch him shoot free throws — and it’s for real,” Van Gundy said. “Even the shots he’s missed in the preseason, everything is soft and on the rim — there hasn’t been anything close to a bad miss.”
One of the biggest differences is everyone seeming to relegate himself to a role without complaint. There’s a different sense of cohesion and wanting to buy into a common goal of making the team better by sacrificing to help different individuals shine on a night-to-night basis.
“It’s an adjustment. It was a sacrifice to give up post touches and try to get my other teammates involved,” Drummond said. “I got two back-door cuts on Avery — they got blocked — but doing things like that gets our team energized and gets us going when we try to get things going instead of pounding in the paint and trying to get a jump-hook.
“It’s like a domino effect: when you do the right thing, it’s going to come right back to you.”
Pistons guard discusses Tobias Harris' big game and team's second-half surge. Rod Beard
Van Gundy is still figuring out his rotation and with the depth of the reserve group, some have to sit, even after good games.
It’s a new-found trust in Van Gundy and each other that’s becoming the cabletow that binds the team together.
“That’s the trust we have to have in each other; it’s coming along. We’re going to try to get better every single night. It’s trust all around,” Harris said.
It goes back to Van Gundy’s mantra of getting everyone to play to their level of greatness, without trying to do too much.
It’s an idea that’s sticking.
76ers at Pistons
Tipoff: 7 Monday, Little Caesars Arena, Detroit
Outlook: The Pistons get their first glimpse at the new-look Sixers (0-3) and look to gain some momentum. Rookie Ben Simmons is averaging 15.7 points, 10.3 rebounds and 6 assists.