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Van Gundy sees mixed results on defensive emphasis

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Toronto — The Pistons have started the regular season, looking for a trip back to the playoffs.

The biggest concern? Not the bench. Not Reggie Jackson’s tendinitis. Not Andre Drummond’s free throws.

It’s defense.

Coach Stan Van Gundy has been harping — and bemoaning — the team’s defense for the entire preseason, pointing to last season’s finish near the middle of the league as one of the main areas of focus for improvement this year.

“There have been games and days in practice where I felt we were really on it and making good strides defensively and games like our last exhibition game with Toronto where I didn’t think our focus or intensity was very good and we didn’t defend well at all,” Van Gundy said Wednesday.

“It’s still up and down, a work in progress and our guys are well aware that defensive improvement is our ticket to getting better and the biggest way we can overcome Reggie being out right now. They understand all that; it’s a matter of going out there and doing it.”

While they hoped to make some strides in the preseason with their team defense, Van Gundy wasn’t happy with their six-game exhibition slate, during which they had trouble with communicating calls and adjusting quickly.

With Jackson out until at least late November, the premium is on defending the pick-and-roll with Ish Smith, who steps into the starting role, and newly acquired Beno Udrih as the backup.

“We really have to step it up defensively; it’s certainly going to be harder to score (without Jackson),” Van Gundy said. “We’ve got to really execute and play together and create shots for each other and we’ll have to put a little more on some other guys, especially Tobias (Harris) and Marcus (Morris).”

The bigger conduit for defensive success is Drummond, who plays the back and makes the defensive calls. Van Gundy would like the see him become more of a true rim protector and not only block some shots, but to affect others on drives to the basket.

The connectedness of all five players on the court, through their communication and reaction to defensive reads, could translate into better overall team defense. But even with Udrih having only two days to learn the offense and defense and projected to play significant minutes as the backup point guard, they’ll have to be even more together in assuring they’re all on the same page.

Getting Udrih up to speed isn’t as much about knowing a particular defensive scheme; rather, it’s just training himself to remember what they’re called.

“It’s not the sets, but the names of the sets. You’ve been working for a year learning the plays and switching — and now it has a different name,” Udrih said. “It’s pretty much the whole league runs (the same) plays and coaches put tweaks on it.

“With so much scouting, you can’t change anything. Other teams know what you play and the percentages of how much you run plays. They know what’s coming but it’s about tweaking or switching the name of it and the harder part is learning the new names.”

Van Gundy joked that with the Raptors’ backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, — who combined for 53 points in the preseason win over the Pistons — it doesn’t matter as much whether there’s a specific game plan against them.

Radio switch

Pistons radio play-by-play announcer Mark Champion announced that he will have heart surgery and take a few weeks off to recover.

“Wanted to let everyone know I will be sidelined a few weeks after tonite,” Champion posted on Twitter. “Heart surgery tomorrow. Best surgeon in the country for this issue.”

Jake Chapman will fill in until Champion is able to return. Chapman usually does the pre- and post-game coverage for the Pistons on flagship WMGC.

Work in progress

Van Gundy isn’t sure how he’ll split the minutes among Smith and Udrih early in the season. While Jackson averaged 30.7 minutes per game last season, it’s no guarantee that Smith will be used as much.

“I just really don’t know (the breakdown) and I don’t that the first couple games will be an indication, either,” Van Gundy said. “We just have to see where he is and where Beno is; I really haven’t determined that yet.”

Smith averaged 29.1 minutes last season with the Sixers and Pelicans but with Udrih’s experience, it could fluctuate.

Injury report

In addition to Jackson’s injury, the Pistons had Reggie Bullock (back spasms) on the inactive list for the season opener.

Rod.Beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard