Auburn Hills — When Ish Smith got the news, he did his best to mask the displeasure. It came as a shock but he wore a smile on the outside and did his best to take it in the best way he could — but it wasn’t easy.
During last Friday morning’s shoot-around in Salt Lake City before the game against the Utah Jazz, Smith found out that he wasn’t going to be playing and that coach Stan Van Gundy would be giving him a game to sit.
After playing all of the Pistons’ first 41 games — including the first 21 as the starting point guard — Smith was beside himself.
“In shoot-around, I wasn’t happy at all when he told me,” Smith recalled Wednesday. “That was the decision he made and when I talked to my mother and my family, they said, ‘Get your head out of your behind and be a good teammate.’
“It was as simple as that.”
Talking to his family helped Smith put things in perspective; it made the anger easier to push down. That, and looking at himself and what he had done on the court in the previous few games.
There was his only scoreless game of the season, against the Miami Heat on New Year’s Day. He had totaled 10 points and two assists in his last two games before the benching, including no assists in 17 minutes against the Golden State Warriors the previous night.
While he’s not regarded as the best scorer, Smith is a very good passer — and when he isn’t breaking down defenses and creating opportunities in transition, there’s something afoot. Van Gundy saw that and did something about it.
“He’d been struggling and playing frustrated. Taking a page from those baseball managers’ book, it’s just a night off to sit and watch and see what’s going on and relax,” Van Gundy said Sunday. “(It was) his decision making in games, where he was forcing stuff and making bad plays and hanging his head.
“He wasn’t playing very freely. Hopefully he’ll get back to it because we need his energy and spirit.”
Smith responded with six points and six assists in 20 minutes in the win over the Lakers.
He was back.
“No matter what happens, we’re a team and we’re in the fight together. I said that I have to be there for my teammates, my brothers,” Smith said. “If you saw me on the bench, I was still upbeat and ready to roll. But at shoot-around, I was heated.”
It’s a range of emotions that comes sometimes with a losing streak. But Smith, one of the more outgoing personalities on the team, is looking to bring the fun back to the season after a disappointing first half has left Van Gundy preaching about defense and the players trying to get things back on track.
Early in the season, the Pistons were one of the top defensive teams in the league, but have regressed in the second quarter — and now they’re just trying to regain their mojo on the defensive end.
After going through long losing bouts throughout his career, Smith knows it’s critical not to lose track of having fun and using that energy to turn things around.
“It’s a must and we have to, because it’s only 43 games in. You pack it in and feel like this is the end now, it can be a long 39 games (left),” he said. “We’re right there. We have to make a push and a run, but the time is now.
“We have to have fun and enjoy each other. Who knows how much longer we have to play this game. We have to enjoy it and get that joy back in the game.”
Van Gundy continues to lament the defensive effort, but coming off a 2-3 road trip, he’s starting to see signs that things are improving, especially in the second half of the win over the Lakers.
The Pistons are still giving up 3-pointers at an alarming rate, but it’s more than just over-pursuing and not getting back to the perimeter shooters.
“Our effort was good but you’ve got to be smart. It’s one thing to say you’re playing hard but there’s a lot of things you have to do,” Van Gundy said. “This is high-level basketball — you’ve got to play it hard, aggressive and smart.
“It’s not enough to say they’re trying hard. That’s a start, but that’s should be a given. This isn’t the YMCA; it’s the NBA — you’ve got to do both.”