Jennings has breakout game as Pistons roll
Auburn Hills — In his first three games back in the lineup since his Achilles injury in January, Brandon Jennings made small steps.
Monday was a huge leap.
Jennings almost equaled his production for three games, igniting for 17 points and six assists in 18 minutes, jump-starting the Pistons to a 115-89 laugher over the Orlando Magic at The Palace on Monday night.
As he rehabbed, many pundits projected Jennings to be the missing link the Pistons needed off the bench to be a postseason contender. With Jennings commanding the offense in the second unit, they looked like the playoff team, not the Magic, who entered a game ahead in the Eastern Conference standings.
The breakout performance surprised even Jennings.
"I didn't think it was going to come that fast, the fact that I was out for 12 months — but it did," said Jennings, who scored seven in each of his first two games back. "It definitely feels good to get my teammates involved.
"We're sharing the ball and making it look easy."
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had 21 points and six rebounds and Andre Drummond had his 30th double-double of the season, with 17 points and 12 rebounds for the Pistons, who won back-to-back home games for the first time since Dec. 6.
The Pistons started 7-of-12 from the field, with Caldwell-Pope's consecutive 3-pointers fueling a 14-0 spurt. Drummond added six points during the run, with an alley-oop from Marcus Morris, a hook in the lane and another lob pass, from Reggie Jackson (14 points, seven assists).
Orlando responded with an 11-2 run, getting a three-point play from Victor Oladipo (18 points) and a 3-pointer from Andrew Nicholson. Shabazz Napier finished the spurt with a 3-pointer, cutting the Pistons' lead to 23-17.
Rookie Stanley Johnson hit a 3-pointer and Ersan Ilyasova added another in the final minute, spurring the Pistons to a 31-23 lead. They shot 57 percent in the quarter and went 4-of-8 on 3-pointers.
Coach Stan Van Gundy said the hot start was a residual effect of Saturday's loss at Indiana, when the Pistons had one of their best efforts of the season, but their shots didn't fall.
"Even though it was a loss and we didn't play well, we started to get back to playing on Saturday with the intensity we needed to play with," Van Gundy said. "Some nights, shots fall and sometimes they don't but if you get the consistent intensity and defensive approach, then you're going to have a good chance to win.
"Our guys fought and we built on it tonight. We played offensively and it was really good."
As much as the starters built the lead early, the reserves were as potent in maintaining the advantage — and even stretching it out.
The Pistons built a 57-47 lead at halftime but the defense wilted, as the Magic closed to 63-60 behind a couple of baskets by center Nikoa Vucevic (16 points). Morris converted a jumper and Caldwell-Pope added a 3-pointer, pushing the lead back to 70-63.
Jennings ended the third with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to make it 88-74.
"I definitely try to get the guys going early and let them know we have to sustain the lead and help our first unit," Jennings said. "They made a run in the beginning of the second half and it was important we didn't let them get close and keep extending the lead."
Jennings was the catalyst to putting the game away in the fourth quarter as well, sparking the decisive 19-0 run. He split a pair of free throws to start the streak and added two foul shots. Jennings led the break on a couple of transition baskets, setting up Caldwell-Pope, who had eight straight points, including back-to-back 3-pointers, pushing it to 103-76 with 7:06 left.
Napier hit a jumper to end the string at 5:30 but Jennings followed with a 3-pointer and the rout was on.
Van Gundy emptied the bench with a 30-point lead and Jennings acknowledged the crowd, which gave him an ovation after a timeout for his stellar play. That meant the starters got some needed rest in the fourth quarter, which Jackson appreciated.
"I can't sit here and talk enough about the performance they put on and just how entertaining it was to be a part of and to be able to cheer them on," Jackson said.
"Our second unit has been playing great as of late and they played tremendous tonight and gave the starters some much-needed rest."