‘Up and down’ Pistons short-handed but still deactivate Rockets

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Pistons' Boban Marjanovic blocks the shot of Rockets' Tarik Black in the third quarter.

Detroit — This Pistons team will make you scratch your head, no doubt about that.

The same team that laid an absolute egg and lost by 36 points in Philadelphia on Friday came back on Saturday, minus three starters, and beat the Southwest Division-leading Houston Rockets, 108-101, at Little Caesars Arena.

“We’ve been a little too up and down; we need to be a little more consistent in what we do,” Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said. “I hope we will get there, to the point where we are playing every single night. I thought we were doing that earlier in the year, but we haven’t been doing that lately.”

That said, the win Saturday was impressive. It stopped a two-game slide, it was won without three starters — center Andre Drummond (bruised ribs), point guard Reggie Jackson (ankle) and forward Stanley Johnson (hip flexor) — and it came against the second-most explosive offensive team in the NBA.

BOX SCORE: Pistons 108, Rockets 101

Tobias Harris led the Pistons, scoring 26 of his 27 points in the first three quarters. Backup point guard Ish Smith added 17 points, including five points down the stretch that thwarted a late run by the Rockets.

But the biggest boosts came from two reserve players who had to fight for jobs during summer league.

Point guard Dwight Buycks scored a career-high 16 points, hitting four of five 3-pointers. He drained two free throws and a fadeaway 3-pointer in back-to-back possessions that put the Pistons up 96-82 with 8 minutes left.

Center Eric Moreland, making his first career start, played a career-high 36 minutes, contributing eight points, eight rebounds and game-changing pick-and-roll defense.

“There’s a lot of guys that can play when given the opportunity,” Van Gundy said. “They were fighting for jobs in summer league and now they are playing the Houston Rockets and play well and winning a game.

“I think coaches are really happy for guys like that who have to fight to get an opportunity and then take advantage of it.”

The Rockets were without leading scorer James Harden, who missed his third straight game with a hamstring strain. Which was of no consolotion to Van Gundy.

“Yeah, now they only have one Hall of Fame guard,” Van Gundy said before the game, referring to Chris Paul. “They’re really down and out. I really don’t understand how they are ever able to win a game.”

Yes, he was applying the sarcasm thickly to make a point. The Rockets still have a potent offensive basketball team. In the two other games without Harden, they still averaged 115 points, which is their season average.

But without Harden, Van Gundy could focus more defensive pressure on Paul, particularly on pick-and-rolls. Whenever Paul was on the court, he made sure the athletic Moreland was on the court.

“Because on pick and rolls with Chris Paul, we wanted to be up (defending at the top of the key),” Van Gundy said. “Chris Paul hurt us and had 13 assists, but I still think we played it the best we could play it. Overall, Eric did a great job being aggressive on their pick and rolls.”

Moreland jamming Paul up high took away Paul’s ability to drive and dish off pick-and-rolls, and it threw the Rockets offense out of rhythm.

“I had better be up there or he would have been dancing on me,” Moreland said. “Going in, that was a point of emphasis, to be up when he ran pick-and-roll. Because he’s really dangerous if he drives, and he’s one of the best passers in the game.

“So the point of emphasis was to stop him from getting in the paint.”

Fifty-one percent of the shots fired up by the Rockets this season have been behind the 3-point arc. That is an historic number of 3-point shots. But Van Gundy said that’s the wrong stat to focus on.

“Here’s the problem,” he said. “Because of their 3-point shooting, they get everything. They’re sixth in the league in layups made. They are second in the league in free-throw attempts. No one ever talks about that.

“Everyone talks about their 3-point shooting, and really they are getting everything and that’s the problem. … If you are going to give them 18 to 20 layups and 25 free-throw attempts, and 40-plus 3-point shots — you are going to have a hell of a time.”

The Pistons took almost all of it away. Without Harden, the Rockets got to the free throw-line 11 times. The Pistons didn’t allow a single fast-break point. And after the first quarter, they stymied the 3-point shot.

“I don’t know,” Van Gundy said. “I thought we took a lot of things away in the third quarter. We definitely took the free throws away and in the third quarter we took the layups away. But they didn’t shoot the 3 very well after the first part of the game.”

The Rockets scored 37 points in the first quarter, hitting 7 of 13 3-point attempts. They were just 8-for-34 from beyond the arc the rest of the game.

“We got stops, but more than that, it was our pace,” said Harris, who scored 11 points in the Pistons 31-19 third-quarter blitz. “We just tried to attack them and create some easy action and close outs. We were good all around, but our pace was very high. We just played with a good vibe.”

Coaches aren’t the only ones who appreciate the contributions of players like Moreland and Buycks. Their teammates do, too.

“Eric did a phenomenal job defending the pick-and-roll,” Harris said. “And Dwight is a scorer. He’s able to create his own shot and open up the floor for a lot of guys. He’s a good pick-and-roll player, too.

“When you see guys like that coming in, in the situations they were in, and they embrace their role and take advantage of it like that, it’s a great thing to see.”

Big Boban Marjanovic (7-foot-3, 290) contributed 10 points, five rebounds but also had three turnovers in 12 minutes. Van Gundy, who picked up his third technical foul in three games, was miffed at how much physical abuse the Rockets got away with against him.

"With his size, they just officiate the game differently," Van Gundy said. "They do. If he pushed and shoved and held guys the way they are able to do to him, there would be a foul every time. I don't get it."

Van Gundy said there are no similar advantages given to defenses against exceptionally quick players.

"They don't let us hold or grab," he said. "But when someone is that big, the game gets called differently. And I think that led to some of his mistakes. He's used to it because it's the same way overseas. He's used to it, but I still don't like it."

Twitter: @cmccosky