Toronto — The season within a season just changed for the Detroit Pistons, a team that adjusted well on the fly but now must recreate an identity if it hopes to continue its improbable run without Brandon Jennings.
Not only was Jennings at the heart of this run, his energy and borderline cockiness pumped life through a dormant locker room, where the players seemed unsure of themselves after a debilitating start.
The cockiness — which was necessary — won't be replicated by anyone currently in the Pistons locker room.
"We need all three of these," Jennings would often say while sitting at his locker before a game, looking at a crucial stretch of contests in front of the Pistons. He wasn't overlooking the night's opponent but recognizing what had to be done to vault themselves back to respectability.
"Why can't we win this one?" he would query if you dare suggested they couldn't win in San Antonio, or Dallas, or at the confidence-building start of their run, in Cleveland.
No matter if the Pistons bring in free-agent guard Nate Robinson, who was released by Boston recently, or if they trade for 37-year-old Knicks guard Pablo Prigioni, they can't replace what Jennings brought in attitude, in panache — and, honestly, Stan Van Gundy needs someone to take a few hair-raising, stress-inducing jumpers every now and again.
It leaves a hole, and although D.J. Augustin showed in Toronto that he's capable of scoring in different ways when given the opportunity, he knows he's a different kind of player
"I'm gonna be myself. I'm not gonna try to be anybody I'm not," Augustin said. "Guys have to step up, not just me."
To be clear, if they don't fix this terrible defense, it doesn't matter what anyone does, because all the optimism will quickly dissipate.
Besides, placing that kind of pressure on Augustin is unfair, especially considering Greg Monroe is the most adept at shouldering more of an offensive burden. Initially because Van Gundy wanted to run so much offense through Josh Smith, Monroe didn't get a bulk of touches. But his numbers have improved every month, ballooning to one of his best as a pro in January, when he averaged 16.5 points and 12.9 rebounds.
That was his best month since February 2012, when he averaged 18.7 and 10.7, respectively.
"Obviously it's gonna be different because those guys aren't dynamic scorers like he was," said Monroe, referring to Jennings' ability to carry a team for long stretches. "
"Obviously it's gonna change what we do and how we attack. We have to find a way to be successful — now those guys can still score. D.J. can shoot it really well. I'm sure Stan is coming up with ways to do things to fit their playing style."
How the Pistons attack now, especially while they work the kinks out of their defense, should be at a slower pace, which emphasizes inside play. Jodie Meeks and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope haven't shot it well lately, and Jennings was the only perimeter-based player capable of breaking his man down off the dribble to create something out of nothing.
Monroe's been more aggressive recently, especially on the glass, being more physical on both ends, to the point where he's their best post defender.
Giving him "max" touches — a touchy term considering the contractual issues the Pistons and Monroe had over the summer (which didn't center on money, it should be noted) — eases the pressure on everybody else.
And in his fifth year, Monroe is probably ready to be the main focus on a team with playoff aspirations.
"Losing somebody like that for the rest of the season you have to make adjustments. Big adjustments," Monroe said. "So these next games, (Van Gundy) continues to do what he does every game. They're gonna watch film, come up with the best plan of attack for us, find out what works for us and what doesn't."
Jennings and Monroe have a bond, often joking about who was the best high school player nationally in their class of 2008. Monroe won the Morgan Wooten Player of the Year, while Jennings won virtually every other major award that season (Naismith, Gatorade, Parade Magazine).
Jennings always has championed Monroe as a dominant force since they've teamed up, so it won't be a shock to see him prod Monroe into being more aggressive. For the Pistons to make the playoffs, or even stay in contention, they'll have to max out on Monroe — who won't mind the extra opportunities.
"Nah," said Monroe with a laugh when asked if he'd turn down more plays called for him. "I mean, just like I've been saying my whole career, if I have the ball, just try to do the right thing. Try to make the right play. If it's more touches, then I'll try to make the right play more times."
Given their lack of options, they don't have much of a choice — and neither does Monroe.
Cavaliers at Pistons
Tip-off: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, The Palace, Auburn Hills
Outlook: The Pistons blew out the Cavaliers, 103-80, on Dec. 28, but that was a game in which Brandon Jennings was hot, not sidelined with a torn Achilles tendon. Now, the Cavaliers are hot, winners of six straight.