Los Angeles — For about the past week or so, it’s been a progression of exercises and drills for Ish Smith.
Some light shooting one day. Some running and cutting another day. By Tuesday, the activity had ramped up to more game-like activity, including cutting and defensive drills. That appears to be one of the final rungs on the ladder to a potential return for Smith, who has been on the shelf since Dec. 5 because of a right groin tear.
The Pistons have struggled during Smith’s down time, going 4-12 since the injury, but he could return to the lineup during the current four-game trip. If his wardrobe for the week-long trip is any indication, he will be back sooner than later.
“I’m tired of those suits — that means I’m not playing,” Smith joked Wednesday. “I have a nice suit for tonight’s game, just in case. I just brought one suit.”
Coach Dwane Casey and the second unit will be happy to see Smith back in a jersey. His absence — as well as center Zaza Pachulia’s — has meant more scrambling of the rotation among the backups, but also has forced the reserves to play without their engine — and that hasn’t gone well during the skid.
“Our second unit needs each other, whether it’s Zaza’s quarterbacking, screening, passing, getting guys open, understanding what we’re doing, the movement we have to create with the second unit,” Casey said. “That’s why our scoring took a hit. Ish’s speed and quickness causes a lot of problems and helps some of the weaknesses of other players who don’t have the speed to take you off the dribble. It’s not only the second unit; it affects a lot of things we’re doing.”
In some games, while the starters have been up, the second unit has lagged — and vice versa. In the string of five losses in the last six games, it’s been a mixed bag and the prospect of getting Smith back to bring his quickness to the bench will make things easier for Casey.
“Our first unit did an excellent job in the last two or three games getting started and now I have to do a better job of making sure we maintain what’s going on until we get the starters back in,” he said. “That’s why when you put the roster together, hopefully, you can put it together where everything fits, with a glue piece and a screener. Some of the skill sets duplicate or emulate your style of play. (Smith and Pachulia) fit that style of play.”
The Pistons got off to a hot start with Smith and Jackson in the lineup, opening with 13 wins in the first 20 games, then losing two before Smith’s injury. Smith said he doesn’t worry about the frustration of the recent string.
They started playing one way with him in the first quarter of the season, but they look completely different now, as they reach the halfway point, playing without one of their most consistently healthy players.
“I don’t think about that. it’s an adjustment. People think it happens quick and it’s an adjustment with a new coach and new system and we’re trying to buy into it,” Smith said. “You can watch us in first quarter and third quarter playing really good basketball and piecing it all together.
“For me, the frustration is I like to play. Since I’ve been here, I’ve played 82 games; when I was in Philly, I played 80-something games. I’m used to being out on the floor playing and I pride myself on being durable.
“Not being out there and not being able to play with the guys and have fun is frustrating.”
Smith, 30, has been a stalwart, missing just one game as a Piston before this season. He’s been a starter out of necessity when Reggie Jackson was injured and now the Pistons’ play during his injury has hurt their playoff chances.
Pistons at Kings
Tip-off: 7 Thursday, Golden 1 Center, Sacramento, Calif.
Outlook: The Kings (20-21) are one of the surprise teams in the league, just two games out of the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference playoff chase. They’ve lost five of the last six but have played well overall (8-3) against the East.