Atlanta — Last season the Pistons struggled out of the gate with a 5-23 start.
Judging by this season's opener, they seem intent on not repeating that start.
With rugged defense and an improved offense, the Pistons earned an eyebrow-raising win over the Atlanta Hawks, 106-94, in the season opener Tuesday night before a sellout crowd at Philips Arena.
It’s the first time the Pistons have won their opening road game since 2009, and it came against a Hawks team that went 35-6 at home last season. The Hawks are projected to be a contender in the Eastern Conference after leading the East with 60 wins last season.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope led the way with 21 points, including 4-of-7 on 3-pointers, and Andre Drummond added 18 points and 19 rebounds.
In their Pistons debuts, Marcus Morris (18 points and 10 rebounds) and Ersan Ilyasova (16 points and seven rebounds) buoyed the starting lineup, which all scored in double figures.
“I loved the way we competed to get that win. A lot of times to come in and get a win against a team like this on their home floor, you’re going to have to shoot lights-out,” Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said. “We were far from that but we were still able to get the win. That’s more satisfying to me; I really like the way our guys competed.”
The Pistons hit 8 of their first 11 field goals, but finished at 39 percent for the game.
It was their defense that enabled the Pistons to hold off the Hawks. Holding them to 18 points in the second quarter and scoring 34 points in the third quarter was the difference.
Drummond had 11 points and Caldwell-Pope added nine in the third, as the Pistons built a 19-point lead late in the quarter. It’s a testament to the work they did in trying to build camaraderie with so many new players on the roster and building cohesiveness in the exhibition season.
“We showed our toughness and the chemistry that we’ve been working on all summer. We’ve been in the gym since July working individually and a couple team things,” Drummond said. “We took the liberty of trying to build a bond with each other without the coaches there, which is what showed on the court today.”
Rookie Stanley Johnson made his debut, entering with 4:48 left in the first quarter. He missed his first three shots, but settled down, hitting three of his next four and finishing with seven points and four rebounds.
In the first quarter the Pistons led, 25-16 after a basket by Drummond, but the Hawks went on a 14-0 run bridging the first and second quarters, with six points from reserve guard Dennis Schroder (20 points).
While the Pistons had trouble stopping dribble penetration by Schroder and Jeff Teague (18 points), they were able to contain All-Star shooting guard Kyle Korver (seven points), holding him to one basket through the first three quarters.
“Obviously, we didn’t play as well as we need to. But a lot of credit to Detroit and how well they played collectively,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “They were very good tonight. We weren’t. So it’s great we get to go to work tomorrow.”
Caldwell-Pope spearheaded the defensive effort on Korver and the Pistons held the Hawks to 45 percent from the field, but keeping Korver in check was critical.
“(Caldwell-Pope) played very well; guarded well and shot well,” Van Gundy said. “He had a very, very good night in both areas.”
Following the drought, the Pistons trailed, 30-25, but pulled within 32-31 on a 3-pointer by Johnson, his first basket. The Pistons took the lead for good on a 3-pointer by Pope, part of a 14-4 run to finish the second quarter with a 48-43 lead.
That bled into the third quarter, with a 3-pointer by Ilyasova, a drive by Reggie Jackson (15 points, eight rebounds and five assists) and a three-point play by Caldwell-Pope to push the lead to 56-43.
“It feels good,” Caldwell-Pope said. “The first game of the season was on the road, so we wanted to come in, stay focused and play harder than they did.”
The Hawks made a comeback, using a 10-2 run to cut the Pistons’ lead to 96-88 with 1:59 left and got within six with 29.4 seconds remaining, but the Pistons hit 9 of 10 free throws in the final minute to put the game away.