New York — In Friday night’s matchup against the Cleveland Cavaliers at The Palace, Pistons rookie Stanley Johnson found himself in a familiar spot — guarding LeBron James.
It’s not that he’s had a lot of experience doing it, but he has spent a significant amount of time studying and preparing for the challenge. So when it came time to perform, he felt like he was ready.
On consecutive possessions at the end of the third quarter, Johnson was matched with James and held his own, forcing James to a baseline jumper from behind the backboard. On the last possession, Johnson didn’t relent, staying in front of him and James missed a jumper before the buzzer.
By no means is it shutting down one of the league’s best players, but it’s a confidence builder and an example of how much Johnson has developed in his defensive game.
“I respect him more than anybody. I watch him the most of any NBA player and the stuff I watch he actually does,” Johnson said. “He’s good because he’s consistent and his consistency can get him into situations where I think I know what he’s going to do.
“There’s stuff you can’t take away; what you can take away is easy baskets.”
James finished 7-of-16 from the field for 20 points, but added nine rebounds and eight assists.
It’s just another chapter in a book of lessons for Johnson, but after crossing the halfway point, he doesn’t seem to be wearing down. Instead, he looks to be gaining steam as he’s improved his production with 13 points and 3.4 rebounds in his last five games, along with hitting 40 percent on 3-pointers.
Adding that offensive component to his stingy defense is making the decision for coach Stan Van Gundy easier to trust him with more minutes, especially during critical times of the game.
“The thing I like is Stanley never backs away from any challenge — that’s never going to happen — and as compared to earlier in the year, he’s really working and trying to learn, too,” Van Gundy said. “You can coach him on some things and he’s trying to get better.”
When Johnson was drafted eighth overall, his defense and competitiveness were two of the traits that stood out as positives. He seems to be delivering on those and showing that he has a bigger upside toward being a two-way standout than many envisioned.
As his offense develops, he’s not willing to take shortcuts on defense to try to compensate, even against some of the NBA’s best scorers.
“People are going to make shots in the NBA; you’re not going to stop anybody totally. As a defender, that’s my job and that’s why I’m here,” Johnson said. “I don’t pat myself on the back — that’s what I’m supposed to be doing. That’s why they drafted me and that’s why I’m playing.”
Van Gundy has been patient with Johnson’s ups and downs as a rookie, noting some of the same fluctuations that Van Gundy experienced in coaching Dwyane Wade during his rookie season with the Heat and that James had in his first year.
“We think he can be really good,” Van Gundy said. “What you get with all these young guys is they play a game and you think he’s really good then they go back the other way and you think he has a long way to go.
“That’s every 19-year-old kid; they’re not at that point.”
Stanley Johnson looks like he’s broken through the rookie wall the last five games:
First 43 games -- 8.1 points, 4.0 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 31 percent 3-pointers, 22.3 minutes
Last five games -- 13.0 points, 3.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 40 percent 3-pointers, 26.6 minutes.
Making a push
The Pistons finish the first half of the season with six games — five against Eastern Conference teams — before the All-Star break. Three of those games are against teams in playoff position: Wednesday at Boston, Saturday at Indiana and home Feb. 8 against the Raptors.
They lead the Knicks, their opponent on Thursday at The Palace, for the No. 8 position by 2 ½ games. But having lost two straight, there’s a need to finish the first half with a push.
“We’ve played our best basketball with our backs to the wall right now,” Anthony Tolliver said. “We’ve got to go to Brooklyn with a sense of urgency and hope to parlay that into a win at Boston.”
Pistons at Nets
Tip-off: 7:30 Monday, Barclays Center, Brooklyn, New York
Outlook: The Pistons are reeling after losing to the top two teams in the Eastern Conference in back-to-back nights. The Nets (12-36) have split the season series, but went 3-13 in January.