Portland, Ore. — Almost every game, Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy finds himself in a dilemma: keep the starters on the floor for a little longer or bring in some reserves.
Sometimes, situations force his hand, such as with early foul trouble or continuous play without timeouts or stoppages that get the players tired a little quicker than normal. Generally, at around the 6-minute mark, Van Gundy likes to get at least one or two reserves in, to split the rotation and get either Blake Griffin or Andre Drummond out of the game.
Other times, he likes to let the starters roll until three minutes are left in the first quarter and then make the substitutions. It’s a feel thing, which sometimes backfires when the reserves don’t have the same energy and don’t bring enough to the game to match the opponents’ level.
It happened on Thursday against the Denver Nuggets, when the Pistons stayed within a four-point margin but promptly gave up a 6-0 run to start the second period, blazing the way for a double-digit deficit.
During the streak of 12 losses in the last 15 games, it’s been one of the Pistons’ Achilles’ heels, falling to a big deficit in the second quarter and trying to climb uphill to get back in the game in the third quarter — and it starts with the rotation choices in the first quarter.
“That’s always the question: when you break the lineup. You’re playing well and have a tendency to want to go with them longer, but it creates problems down the stretch,” Van Gundy said. “You probably have to be a little quicker to break the lineup and be a little more conscious of who we’re going to have out there in second quarter.”
Generally, Luke Kennard or Stanley Johnson is the first wing off the bench, or backup center Eric Moreland enters to spell Drummond or Griffin. It’s a shell game that Van Gundy is trying to play to find the right five-man group that gives them the best chance to stay in games.
Those groupings have varied since the Pistons acquired Griffin at the end of January — and that’s made it tough to find new lineups that work well. It’s been rough sledding so far and Van Gundy is still on the hunt.
“It’s hard because of the change in the team. We have five lineups that are plus lineups but four of them are under 40 minutes as a group, so how do you do it?” Van Gundy said. “The fifth one is Ish (Smith), (Reggie) Bullock, Stanley (Johnson), Blake and Andre (Drummond). That was built on those early games.
“They were really good and lately that one hasn’t been really good. It’s tough because we only have 18 games with this group of players.”
Finding that right blend still is a work in progress, but that will be one of the big takeaways from the remaining games, to see how the combinations work and how they might have to tinker with the roster in the offseason to complement the trio of Griffin, Drummond and Reggie Jackson.
The news of Virginia’s loss — the first No. 1 seed to fall in the opening game of the NCAA Tournament — still was on Van Gundy’s mind after Saturday’s shoot-around at Moda Center. Though Van Gundy typically doesn’t watch much college basketball during the NBA season, he did appreciate the David-and-Goliath storybook win for the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.
What Van Gundy found most impressive was UMBC’s offensive display in breaking down Virginia’s defense — one of the best in the country.
“(It only takes) one night,” Van Gundy said, “To score 74 on Virginia is like scoring 110 on anybody else. (Virginia) is impossible to score on.”
Van Gundy said he had watched UMBC some in the regular season, but they didn’t play to the same level they did Friday — and they put it all together for the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history.
Jackson continued his progression to return to the court in his rehab from the right-ankle sprain that has kept him out since Dec. 26. While Van Gundy had hoped Jackson might be back in full-contact practices, he’s still ramping up his individual work to try to get to that point.
“He played 3-on-3 yesterday and now we have to go full-court, either 4-on-4 or 5-on-5, at least in short bursts and then try to stretch those out and get to 5-on-5 stuff,” Van Gundy said. “He hasn’t done any full-court yet.”