Big-headed Pistons? Van Gundy preaching against that pitfall

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
Avery Bradley and Stan Van Gundy

Auburn Hills — After their 8-3 start, the Pistons are in an unusual spot. Over the past couple years, they’ve had to deal with adversity in many forms, but success hasn’t been plentiful.

As one of the biggest surprises in the early part of the NBA season, they’re getting some attention on a national level and getting questions about whether they’re legitimately good and if their hot start is sustainable.

That’s where coach Stan Van Gundy starts to get a bit nervous.

With some good wins on their resume, including a 3-0 mark on the second night of back-to-backs, they’re turning some heads, but the hard part will be staying within themselves.

“That’s the hardest thing in an NBA season: It’s 82 games and handling success and adversity and being able to be consistent from night to night,” Van Gundy said Friday morning, ahead of Detroit’s 7 p.m. home game against Atlanta. “Everybody is talking about how good we are — and that scares the (crap) out of me. Are we mature enough to handle that?

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“We’ve been a team that’s been fighting to win games and get respect. And now, everybody starts telling you that you’re good. If we starting believing that (stuff), then we won’t be.”

As they vault up power rankings and accumulate wins, the Pistons are going to have to keep proving that it’s not fool’s gold.

And with the proliferation of hot takes and opinions on social media, it’s much harder to avoid. That’s where Van Gundy says the maturity of his young roster will come into play, in maintaining an equilibrium.

“To be really good, you’ve got to be able to sustain it night in and night out and build habits that you can count on over the course of a season,” he said. “It’s impossible (to avoid). It’s how you deal with it, because you can’t keep it out. These guys hear everything and see everything. Whether somebody is blowing smoke and telling you how good you are or somebody is telling you that you suck, you’re seeing all that.

“Maintaining an even demeanor and focus and energy level of what you have to do every night is not easy. Guys have to be far more mentally tough than they’ve ever had to be, because of that stuff.”

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Though the Pistons have signature road wins against the Warriors and Clippers, plus home victories over the Bucks and Timberwolves, there’s still some hesitation to embrace the early success, without balancing it with the reality of losses to the Lakers and Sixers.

Van Gundy doesn’t necessarily differentiate between the highs of the wins or the lows of the losses, but understanding that the range between the two levels is part of what he’s looking to manage.

“We have both in us. We have really good basketball in us and when we don’t bring a focus and an energy, we have really bad basketball in us too,” he said. “Our guys have to recognize that — that’s not being negative at all. When we bring what we’re supposed to bring, we can play really good basketball.

“I get both. That’s how we have to play: It has to be that level of energy, focus and intensity. Nothing else will do. If we don’t bring that, anybody in this league will beat us.”

Tolliver on a roll

It’s been an up-and-down start to the season for Henry Ellenson, who has played since the loss to the Lakers on Oct. 31. The second-year forward has seen action in just five of the first 11 games and has had a couple of good outings, but with Anthony Tolliver’s savvy veteran play, it’s been hard for Ellenson to get playing time.

Given Tolliver’s good defensive performances against the likes of Kristaps Porzingis, Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo, he’s found a niche in the reserve unit.

“He’s been good. It is tough. He was playing and playing well. AT had some really strong performances and moved ahead of him in the rotation,” Van Gundy said. “It was of no fault of Henry’s and his work and focus in practice have still been good.”

Reigns short-lived

Just a couple years ago, the Atlanta Hawks were regarded as one of the up-and-coming teams in the league and were the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. They’ve fallen on harder times, losing most of that roster and rebuilding around Dennis Schroder. It’s a trend in the NBA, of quick turnover and rebuilding to prominence.

“Things change all the time in this league. The Warriors changed, the Celtics were in the Eastern Conference finals (last season) and totally changed their roster,” Van Gundy said. “Cleveland changed. Everything changes all the time. That’s the No. 1 thing you can count on, that things are not going to stay the same in any franchise. That’s just the nature of the game.”

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard