MILWAUKEE – The thing Stan Van Gundy banked on over the summer in building a roster he felt gave him depth and options aplenty was instrumental in the Pistons rolling to a 14-6 start.
But over a four-game road trip that brought the Pistons nothing but frustration and disappointment they experienced the flip side. When the bench gets outplayed, wins are going to come grudgingly.
In the 104-100 loss that wrapped up the 0-4 trip, graphic evidence of that point was on display to start the fourth quarter. With Tobias Harris on the floor with four substitutes – and, even at that, Van Gundy had shrunk the rotation, playing nine instead of 10 with Langston Galloway the odd man out – the Pistons didn’t score their first basket of the fourth quarter until Harris hit a 12-footer with 5:12 remaining.
In that nearly seven-minute stretch with Eric Moreland, Ish Smith, Anthony Tolliver and Luke Kennard joining Harris for the first four minutes of it, the Pistons shot 0 of 9 and committed three turnovers spanning nine possessions. They were outscored 14-1, giving Milwaukee a 13-point lead to protect from a tie game to start the fourth quarter. They still somehow managed to make it interesting, cutting the deficit to three with 1:17 to go and to two twice in the final 20 seconds, but the hole dug was too deep.
To a question of what Milwaukee did to shut down the Pistons, Van Gundy answered,
“It’s also who we had in the game. Resting people. Our bench has not played very well on this trip. We may have to change up our rotations because our bench had been, obviously, really, really good for us and now has not been.”
Andre Drummond was magnificent, scoring a game-high and personal season-best 27 points to go with 20 rebounds, six assists and just one turnover. He shot 12 of 15, but his teammates connected at a brutal .338 clip, 24 of 71.
The two players off the bench the Pistons might expect to produce scoring, Anthony Tolliver and Luke Kennard, shot a combined 3 of 15. Stanley Johnson missed all eight of his shots, four of them 3-pointers. The starting backcourt of Avery Bradley (5 of 13) and Reggie Jackson (5 of 14) struggled, as well. Only Harris (8 of 14, 21 points) provided efficient scoring alongside Drummond.
“We got really stagnant offensively,” Drummond said about the start of the fourth quarter from his viewpoint on the bench. “We were playing a lot of one-on-one basketball at the offensive end and defensively we allowed them to get a lot of offensive rebounds off of free throws to kind of give them life and got them going.”
Van Gundy lamented a few plays that stood out in violation of cardinal rules. Allowing the Bucks to grab those missed free throws, as Drummond noted. Giving up a dunk to John Henson on a baseline out of bounds play with Milwaukee facing a short shot clock and a corner three to Khris Middleton in a similar situation.
“We didn’t do enough of the little things,” he said. “We gave up free-throw rebounds, two of ’em. Screw up some out-of-bounds-play defense. Simple stuff that’s easy to do and we didn’t take care of it.”
“It’s frustrating. Those are the things we can control,” Bradley said. “That’s effort plays. You just have to be locked in and focused on those things. Boxing out on free throws and those plays can’t happen if we want to be the team we want to be.”
Thus concludes a stretch of 9 of 11 games away from home and the Pistons, after starting it 4-3, finish it 4-7. So they’ll welcome coming home, but it’s not like the schedule – by winning percentage of their opponents, second-toughest in the NBA over the past month – gets any softer. Next up: Golden State and Boston, with a cumulative record of 42-10, over the weekend at Little Caesars Arena.
“This is the NBA, man. We’re going to be playing against the best people every single night,” Bradley said. “Even the teams that aren’t above .500, they’re still good teams. You have to make sure you’re prepared and we have to go out there and play hard and get Ws. That’s our main focus. We can’t keep taking steps backward. We have to continue to keep getting better and improving on areas of our game and not repeating the same mistakes.”
“We’ve just got to keep our head up,” Drummond said. “We can’t allow these losses to get us down. It’s a long season. We’ve had a lot of success early in the year. This stretch was bound to happen. What we do with this rough patch will really show our character so we’ve got to continue to play hard and stay ready.”