Pistons’ emphasis on defense is paying off

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
Andre Drummond

San Antonio — Through the first couple weeks of the season, the Pistons haven’t been themselves — in some ways good and some completely out of character.

One issue is that they’re missing point guard Reggie Jackson, and another is their focus on defense.

It’s still early in the season, but things likely will crystallize more after Jackson (knee tendinitis) returns to the lineup in a couple weeks.

Without Jackson, the Pistons’ offense is struggling, ranking 24th in field-goal percentage (.433) and 18th in scoring (98.1). The flip side of the equation is that they’ve improved in several defensive categories: opponents’ field-goal percentage (.430, fourth), points allowed (97.4, fifth) and defensive rating (101.0, fifth).

The Pistons are playing better defense than they did last season, when they ranked in the middle of the league, and not as well offensively, which is understandable without their starting point guard.

“What you’d like is to be good at both ends. Getting our defense established is more of the priority,” coach Stan Van Gundy said. “Offensively, we’ve been too much a one-option team. We don’t do a good job of getting the ball from side to side. … It’s just been a lot of one-on-one play.”

The thinking is that Ish Smith, who has struggled offensively at point guard, will bounce back from his shooting slump and help in getting the offense organized and the ball moving to facilitate higher-percentage shots.

Van Gundy prioritized improving the defense, understanding that it’s a necessary step to winning close games and being able to advance in the playoffs.

“We try to work on both ends of the floor and there’s been more emphasis on defense. The history of our league will show the best teams are the ones who are good on both sides of the ball,” Van Gundy said. “You have a chance as a top-10 defensive team who may be middle-of-the-pack or lower offensively.  The other way around, you really don’t.”

Pistons’ Ish Smith mired in shooting slump

Andre Drummond has been one of the keys to the defense, with his improved footwork in guarding pick-and-roll plays and protecting the rim. It’s still a work in progress, but he sees the importance of getting better in team defense to augment their offense.

“I’d rather we have a very successful defensive night than fantastic offensive night,” Drummond said. “Defensively, it’s demoralizing to have somebody stop you from everything you’re trying to do from scoring. When we have great defensive nights, offensively, it takes care of itself.”

Taking baby steps

Through eight games, Drummond is less of a liability at the free-throw line than his league-worst shooting (36 percent) last season.

He’s used virtual-reality goggles for positive visualization of proper mechanics and to help train himself to adapt to things he’s doing correctly. Drummond also has adopted a new routine of walking back toward midcourt after each free throw — make or miss — and say some words to himself for motivation.

So far, it’s working.

“I don’t shortcut my routine anymore. If I miss a shot, I’d get frustrated and shortcut my routine,” Drummond said. “Now I have something that really works for me and if I do miss a shot, I don’t get frustrated or upset. It’s just a missed shot and I’ll go back and do what I need to do and come back and shoot the same shot — either it goes in or it doesn’t.”

Drummond is shooting better from the free-throw line (52 percent) than from the field (48 percent). It’s a small sample size (23-of-44), but it’s an early sign that some of the techniques he’s using are translating from the practice court to game situations, which was one of the issues last year.

“For me, it’s shooting the same shot over and over again,” Drummond said. “It’s just staying positive, shooting the same shot and trying to have fun with it. I’m excited with the progress I’ve made and I’ll continue to do the same thing and try to get better every game.”

Pistons at Nuggets

Tipoff: Saturday, 9 p.m., Pepsi Center, Denver

TV / radio: FSD-Plus / WMGC

Outlook: The Nuggets are winless at home and have lost three of the last four games, including a 24-point blowout to the Warriors. The Pistons won by 17 at The Palace last Saturday.

Rod.Beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter @detnewsRodBeard