Beard: Pistons' Luke Kennard looks to elevate his defensive game
Miami — Against the Miami Heat, Luke Kennard was undaunted by the challenge.
He was faced with the task of guarding Dwyane Wade — who, even at age 37, can be difficult to defend. Wade had his moments, with 15 points, but the Pistons prevailed, 119-96, on Saturday night.
Kennard was one of the focal points, with his defense on Wade and helping the bench group, which posted 66 of the Pistons’ points.
“Luke did a heck of a job defensively, getting steals and getting in passing lanes,” coach Dwane Casey said. “The second unit did a heck of a job.”
For Kennard, part of the challenge stepping up and getting the defensive assignment against Wade, who is the Heat’s best reserve option on offense. That duty generally fell to Stanley Johnson, but after the Pistons traded Johnson and Reggie Bullock, their two most physical wings, Kennard has gotten something of a promotion.
“Having the challenge of guarding one of the two best players offensively helps me a little bit and gets me motivated,” Kennard said. “Coach has been on me about playing with more force and with more physicality and that’s what I was focused on. Defense was on my mind a lot the past couple days.”
Kennard showed some flashes, with a couple of steals, which led to easy baskets in transition — not once, but twice.
“Luke can be better; he was better (Saturday). He was guarding Wade most of the night and did a good job being in the passing lanes and getting deflections,” Casey said. “I’m not going to let him relax and not do it — not any of our guys.”
Although Kennard primarily has been an offensive option, he relished the opportunity to guard Wade, on his home court, as the Pistons were making a push for the playoffs. He’s picked up his game on the offensive end as well, averaging 12.4 points and shooting 50 percent (12-of-24) on 3-pointers.
“It’s maybe having the ball in my hands a little bit more, shooting more, playing with Blake more and being a spot-up shooter and making plays,” Kennard said. “There might be a little bit more of an opportunity there with more minutes. We lost two wing guys and we got Wayne (Ellington).
“(My role) has stayed the same; no change is needed.”
It’ll be an ongoing task for Kennard, who is going to continue to get those tough defensive assignments during the final stretch of 24 games, with the Pistons in the playoff chase.
“Defensively, I have to play with more force and physicality. The coaches have been on me about that. In Atlanta (on Friday), I was soft and I knew that. (Versus the Heat) I wanted to play with more physicality, toughness and grit and a chip on my shoulder on the defensive end.”
The Monday Drive looks at some significant observations from the Pistons’ recent surge, winning six of their last seven games:
► Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson have been significantly more efficient during the stretch, running more pick-and-roll and with Jackson finding Drummond with precise pocket passes. It’s the added variety that the offense needed, after depending on Blake Griffin for the first half of the season. Jackson also has scored 20.1 points and shot 47 percent on 3-pointers in the last eight games.
► The reserve group continues to be inconsistent, running hot and cold from game to game, but their performance against the Heat on Saturday stands out. Langston Galloway, who had struggled for much of the past few weeks, broke out with 15 points in just over four minutes in the third quarter. When he’s on, he takes some of the pressure off rookie Khyri Thomas having to play and contribute.
► Rookie Svi Mikhailiuk, who arrived in the trade for Reggie Bullock, has played sparingly and fans are concerned. While he has plenty of upside, there’s a tendency to rely on the knowns such as Galloway, Thomas and Bruce Brown instead of putting pressure on Mykhailiuk, who still is adjusting to the system, to come in and pick things up immediately. It looks like they’ll bring him along slowly and look to their other options.
► Ish Smith made a big statement with his 22 points and nine assists Saturday. It’s clear that the Pistons struggled while Smith who has missed 26 games because of injuries; they’re 5-2 since he’s been back in the lineup.
“It means so much to us; the pace he brings is one of the fastest in the NBA and it allows us to control the game,” Kennard said. “The way he plays opens so much for other guys. Nobody can really stop him or stay in front of him.”
► Bruce Brown came back with a bounce in his step after the All-Star break. His back-and-forth with the Hawks’ Trae Young was one of the highlights of the road trip, as Brown had a couple dunks and didn’t back down from the defensive challenge. He still is building an offensive presence but if he can continue to lay like that defensively, he’ll balance out the starting group.
Pistons vs. Pacers
Tipoff: 7 p.m. Monday, Little Caesars Arena
TV/radio: FSD/97.1 FM
Outlook: The Pistons (28-30) have won six of their last seven games, including a weekend road sweep at Atlanta and Miami, and moved into seventh place in the East. The Pacers (40-20) have stayed afloat without the injured Victor Oladipo, winning eight of their last nine.