Pistons expect healthy Jackson to help playoff push
Auburn Hills — The Pistons haven’t lived up to expectations this season, partly due to the injury to Reggie Jackson, who missed the first 21 games because of knee tendinitis.
The Pistons (26-30) have waded around .500 for most of the season and, as they hit the All-Star break, they’re in position for a playoff spot, holding on to the eighth position. But there’s growing optimism that as Jackson gets more strength in his left knee and gets more acclimated to a new role in the offense, they can make a run in the 25 games after the break.
“My confidence level in (his getting back to normal) is high. It’s tough when you sit out training camp and miss that many games,” coach Stan Van Gundy said. “Reggie would tell you that 21 games and training is a long time and a team starts to develop a little different identity, and he has to come back and fit into that.”
The Pistons relied heavily on Jackson as the catalyst for their pick-and-roll offense since he was acquired at the trade deadline in 2015. He signed a long-term contract for five years, $80 million before last season and now in the second year of that deal, the landscape seems to have changed.
Van Gundy alluded to some coming tweaks after last season’s trip to the playoffs and sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers. The notion was to spread more of the offense around to other players, while still relying mainly on the pick-and-roll as the foundation.
But Jackson hasn’t been as explosive in going to the rim, making the pick-and-roll less effective. And that has put the offense in some disarray in trying to find alternate ways to score.
“Before, we had built around him. That’s been a different thing. That’s had as much to do with it as anything physical,” Van Gundy said. “It’s an adjustment period for all of us and I don’t have any doubts that he’ll be back to playing the way he was before.
“I would say my confidence in that is — you’re never at 100 percent, so 99 percent. He’s too young; he’s not 35 years old, where he’s on a downward spiral and he might be losing it; he’ll get it back.”
Jackson returned to the lineup Dec. 4 and posted 14.5 points and 5.3 assists in his first month back, playing about 27 minutes a game. In January, those number perked up to 19.6 points and 5.8 assists in 13 games. But in February, the scoring has slumped dramatically, down to 8.5 points in eight games.
It’s a short-term concern and Van Gundy has used backup Ish Smith more in the final minutes of games which Jackson has struggled. But in the long term, Van Gundy isn’t as worried, thinking the offseason will be enough time for Jackson to regain his explosiveness and get him back to his form from the preseason.
“There’s no question about that. It’s not easy coming back off those things. It’s one thing to be back playing and another thing to be back to 100 percent. It’s two totally different things,” Van Gundy said. “There’s no question he’s going to get back to that and no question he’s a really talented guy.”
In training camp, Van Gundy praised Jackson’s improvement, noting that Jackson was playing maybe the best he has in his career. But when the knee tendinitis became too much to bear, they decided on a platelet-rich plasma injection for treatment, causing him to miss the first six weeks. That threw off the expectations, with Smith in the starting role and Beno Udrih as the backup; the Pistons started 11-10 in that stretch.
“(Jackson) was ready. He’s been back a while but things happen. The dynamics change and the system’s not quite the same; you’re not playing the same way. The dynamics with the rest of the team change,” Van Gundy said. “It’s been rough for him and for us to find any great footing, where we were on a consistent basis all the time.
“We started to get back to where we were playing really well then we go out west and lose Jon and KCP. We haven’t been able to hit a period where we’re playing the same people night in and night out — and when we have, we’ve played better.”
That improvement is what the Pistons seem to be fighting uphill to get back to. In their final 25 games, they have the easiest remaining schedule in the league, based on opponents’ win percentage.
But getting there will depend greatly on whether Jackson can continue to turn his game around to what it was last season. And that’s based off expectations created from the run last year.
“From the outside, (fans and media) expect more. We expect more, but we know it’s a process,” Jackson said Wednesday. “We’re not on the same pace, but we had ups and downs with injuries and people in and out of the lineup.
“We’re trying to figure it out but we’re happy to be back in the playoff hunt and trying to get continuously better each and every day.”
The toll on Jackson seems to fluctuate, as he tries to find the streak of finishing at the rim and being one of the best fourth-quarter finishers in the league. Whether it’s the knee or the different role in the offense is unclear, but Van Gundy and Jackson are looking to work together to figure it out.
“That’s what he’s dealing with — I don’t think it’s an emotional thing or a lack of confidence thing,” Van Gundy said. “It’s a rhythm thing and not having the ball in your hands all the time. That’s been the adjustment he has to make and that’s the way he sees it too.”