Johnson's 'unbelievable' defense buoys Pistons

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard shows his frustration after dribbling the ball off his foot on Wednesday night against the Detroit Pistons.

Toronto — Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard dribbled toward the basket, with the gleam in his eyes of a predator stalking his prey, sizing up Stanley Johnson for a mortal blow to end the game Wednesday night.

In a tie game, the seconds ticked down and before Leonard could strike, the ball caromed off his foot and out of bounds. The juxtaposition of Leonard’s disappointed sigh and Johnson’s simultaneous Cheshire smile and hand clap told the story of the game.

The Raptors had let a 19-point lead slip through their grip and Leonard had squandered their last possession, leaving two seconds on the clock. That was plenty of time for coach Dwane Casey to draw up a winning play, as Reggie Bullock dropped in a floater as time expired. Pistons 106, Raptors 104.

Johnson’s play on both ends was the catalyst.

He was stellar on defense almost every time he guarded Leonard, stopping the ball and causing a few uncharacteristic turnovers.

“Our defense turned up and Stanley did an unbelievable job on Kawhi,” forward Blake Griffin said.

For Johnson, the key was plenty of observation of game film and trying to emulate Leonard’s game.

“I just try to play as hard as I can. In my eyes, he’s top two (among stars) in the NBA, a guy that I watch a lot,” Johnson said. “I try to model my game after him, so I guess I overwatch him. Just playing basketball, things happen and you lose the ball.

“There’s nothing you can really do. He’s going to make shots and miss shots so just play your hardest and wish for the best.”

Johnson had a fourth quarter to remember, with eight of his 12 points, including two 3-pointers that keyed the comeback. Casey leaned on Johnson, keeping him in the game down the stretch over starting forward Glenn Robinson III.

The gamble paid off, as Johnson was able excel on both ends of the court. He said what he did against Leonard was more important than the 3-pointers.

“The defense affected the game more than me hitting two shots,” he said. “We got some steals and when we get out on the break, we’re really good.”

Win with meaning

The Pistons got a win they needed to stay above .500 but the impressive part of the comeback was the players’ collective quest to win a game they knew was important to Casey, as he faced his former team for the first time.

“He would never say that but any time you come back to a place you spent so much time and had so much success and obviously the fans love him here,” Griffin said. “To win coach of the year and switch jobs in the same year, it’s tough. I think it meant a lot to him, the way we came back.”

When the lead got bigger, several players noticed that Casey got more intense and focused on the sideline. They picked up on his demeanor and channeled that energy in a way they’ve rarely done this season.  

“I was really happy we could do it for him,” Johnson said. “I know the whole game, I was thinking I don’t want to go in here and lose because this is the only time we’re here this season.”

Comeback subplots

The fourth-quarter comeback had some interesting subplots to it. While Griffin had 30 points, he only had two in the fourth quarter. The Pistons got some much-needed offense from Johnson and Reggie Jackson, who had eight points apiece, including a combined 14 straight during a critical run to gain the lead.

Eight different players scored in the fourth quarter, but only Jackson and Johnson had more than one field goal. That bodes well for the Pistons, who fell into the big deficit because they didn’t have another scorer who could be the secondary scorer.

After moving from the starting group to the reserve group, Johnson has flourished in a different role, handling the ball more and creating offense for himself off the dribble. Casey put another spin on it, using Johnson with the starters — and his added offense was a plus.

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard