Milwaukee — During their five-game winning streak, the Pistons have been able to hold things together, even without two of their main rotation pieces. Stanley Johnson (back) missed three games and Jon Leuer (sprained left ankle) five games, but finally are ready to return.
It’s just in time too bolster their lineup for the three-game trip, beginning with Wednesday’s matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks. The Pistons have been able to lean on their bench, with Reggie Bullock starting for Johnson and Eric Moreland getting a boost in playing time with Leuer out.
With the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo looming, getting both players back helps, as coach Stan Van Gundy joked after Wednesday’s shoot-around. It’ll be a group effort, with Johnson and Leuer joining Anthony Tolliver and Tobias Harris in taking turns guarding Antetokounmpo, who is leading the NBA in scoring at 31.3 points.
“(Plus) Tolliver and Tobias. We have to have four guys ready to go on him,” Van Gundy said. “Sometimes you need four guys guarding him on the same possession.”
After a poor opening game, Johnson will be a welcome addition to the starting lineup, with his defense alongside Avery Bradley on the wing. Johnson was averaging 10.7 points and shooting 41 percent on 3-pointers in the six games before his injury.
Tuesday’s practice marked his first full participation in almost two weeks and predictably, Johnson was a little rusty, especially on the offensive end, Van Gundy noted Tuesday.
“I haven’t really done anything in 10 days, but it still is basketball,” Johnson said Tuesday. “I feel like it’s more getting my wind and see where I am. It felt good and I’ll see what happens tomorrow whether I’ll be able to play.”
Johnson will play, and his presence on defense will be paramount. The Pistons hope his timing and rhythm will return gradually.
“We have missed his defense in particular and rebounding — that’s probably been the biggest area,” Van Gundy said. “He also was playing really well offensively, under control.”
Beyond Johnson starting and Bullock going to the bench, there aren’t very many certainties in the reserve group. Ish Smith is a lock at backup point guard and Anthony Tolliver looks to have moved into the preferred role at power forward.
Besides those, it’s going to be on an as-needed basis and based on the opposing team and the challenges they present.
“You’ve seen our bench and you know Ish is going to play. Other than that, it’s different guys at different times; it depends on matchups,” Van Gundy said. “Eric (Moreland) had a really good game against (the Bucks) last time, but Jon has been a good defender against them and has been comfortable guarding a guy like (Thon) Maker on the perimeter.”
Recognition for Harris
Johnson was among the teammates who reveled in Tobias Harris’ award for Eastern Conference player of the week. It’s a rarity for a Pistons player to get the accolade, but it’s as much a team award as it is an individual accomplishment.
“I didn’t even know he was playing that well. He’s playing (much better) and that’s amazing. He works really hard at basketball and he’s one of the most prepared guys around here that I’ve seen and been around,” Johnson said. “He truly deserves the award. He puts the work in: he lifts every day, he’s on time, respects his teammates and works hard and follows the game plan.
“Why can’t he be an All-Star or one of the best players in the Eastern Conference? I don’t see why he can’t.”
The Pistons had a team-bonding activity Tuesday night, going to an escape room in Milwaukee. Van Gundy sees it as a positive that they’re doing things together and not staying to themselves on the road.
“It’s a group that really is in it together. That hasn’t been really tested yet because we’ve gotten off to a really good start, but I have every confidence that even as this group does go through some tough times, they’ll hang together,” Van Gundy said. “Stuff like that is like putting money in the bank — you build up your reservoir of trust and liking people and it carries you through the tough times when you need it.”