“You Gettin’ Mad... I’m Gettin’ Rich!”
Things sure were revving up in the Motor City the last time the Detroit Pistons met the Atlanta Hawks on the neutral court known as Philips Arena, a December day not much different than today (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Detroit).
Why, it was only four weeks ago, when the league’s most-shy 3-point shooting team strolled into the Lamelight Factory and shattered their franchise record with 17 three-point makes (on 29 attempts). Sure, the Hawks were missing their Anchorman in Paul Millsap (hip). But the Pistons likewise enjoyed their biggest victory of the year margin-wise, 121-85, without their team’s leading scorer.
Reggie Jackson (knee, thumb) had been out all season, but was ready to hop on the wave two nights later back home against Orlando. Surely, a surge to the upper room in the Eastern Conference was around the corner, right?
Well, not exactly. They flopped against the Magic. The next game, though, they toppled their division-rival Bulls at The Palace. Happy days are here again, right? Well, not quite. A season-low 77 points in a loss at Charlotte (despite a familiar-sounding 26 & 20 performance by Andre Drummond) was quite a bummer. However, after that game came a resounding 117-90 victory in Minnesota (Drummond with 22 & 22). So, it’s Morning in Auburn Hills, right?
Well, not really. The Pistons returned home and suffered an inexcusable 97-79 loss to the 76ers (and, no, Joel Embiid did not play). But, hey, after a couple days off, Detroit bounced back and prevailed in Dallas. Now, the ship is steering in the right direction, right? Well, hold your horses.
Back-to-back defeats at Washington (allowing a season-high 122 points) and back home versus the Pacers meant it was time for the tried-and-true Players-Only Meeting! Leading scorer Tobias Harris felt relieved after the meeting, convened by backup big Aron Baynes after the 15-point loss to Indy. “It’s a dialogue about communication for everybody… it was good to just get everybody talking,” Harris told the delayed postgame media. Marcus Morris gave his best Bluto impression. “Are you going to play for the next man beside you, or are you going to play for yourself?”, he paraphrased for reporters.
So, all for one, one for all, right? Well, not quite. See, Jackson (45.7 eFG%, lowest eFG% among top 35 NBA players in Usage%) kinda got the impression that the team’s frustrations were directed squarely toward him. After all, things were on the uptick before he returned – hey, did you not see how good we looked against Atlanta, without you???
So, a miffed Jackson decided to come into Chicago playing not so much Detroit Basketball, but something more like Deez Nuts Basketball, declining to take a shot, even when open, until nearly halftime. The result? A 113-82 drubbing. That’ll learn ‘em, R-Jax! “That wasn’t us,” said the always forthcoming Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy, “That was him.”
Atlanta knows all about up-and-down, one-step-forward, two-steps-back basketball. I joked just yesterday, though, that the Hawks’ alternate logo ought to be a Black Box. Through all the ups and mostly downs, if you catch so much as a hint of off-court dissension on this team, from either coaches or players, your flight has officially landed inside a volcano. That’s never the situation in Detroit, certainly not when their head coach is anywhere within eight miles of a microphone. I present to you, via MLive and the Detroit Free Press, the many smooth stylings of “Stan Van Gundy: Master of Panic.”
Reflecting after the loss to the Suxers, after returning from Minnesota: “We weren’t ready. To hell with the weather… You’re an NBA player. It’s your job to be ready to play. But I didn’t do my job in getting them ready to play.”
After the loss to the Pacers: “We’ve definitely got to look at some things, lineup and rotation-wise. That unit (Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Morris, Harris, Drummond) is clearly not working… So, the question is, how long do you stick with it?... There’s no question we’re not as good as before (Jackson’s return)… Our offensive frustrations have taken a toll on our defense. It shouldn’t, and it’s not a legitimate excuse. But I’m just giving you the facts.”
After the third-straight double-digit loss, in Chicago: “Team meeting, my [patootie]. Like I said before, that stuff means nothing; it’s what you do on the court. Talking is easy… It was a disgusting performance, by all of us. Me included. It was unprofessional. Embarrassing. Humiliating. Whatever you want to say, it was terrible… Looks to me like a lack of effort, a lack of heart… I guarantee you on Wednesday night, we’re not trottin’ that (starting) five out there again.”
Riffing on players, like Drummond, concerned about fewer touches since Jackson’s return: “I told them today I don’t really care… you know what, my basic message today was, ‘Do your job’… Does the plumber get a motivational speech in the morning? No… He either does his job right or he doesn’t get paid… I don’t know in how many jobs, and I said this to them, does your employer pay you and then also take responsibility for your happiness? That ain’t the way it works.”
All of that, and more, from The Notorious M.O.P. in just the past 18 days. If Coach Bud’s mealy-mouthed postgame commentaries bore you to tears, go catch some interviews in the Pistons’ locker room after a bad loss. Oh, and he’s not done.
SVG is virtually down to using toes to find something he can point at people with, so he’s trying a different tack. “When a team is having the problems we’ve had this many times, it’s on me,” he told the media after a 25-point loss at home to the Bucks on Wednesday, “I’m not going to get in here and blister the players… I’m responsible. I got to figure out what needs to be done. Quite honestly, I’m embarrassed. I’m not getting it done. I’m NOT getting it done.”
Detroit has one win in their past seven games, and that exception was gifted to them on Monday by Tyronn Lue, after the Cavs coach DNP-REST’d LeBron James. Close-shave losses to Golden State and Memphis served as encouragement, but the Milwaukee loss knocked them for yet another loop. Tonight, will they be able to once again sip from the Fountain of Relevance in Atlanta?
While they indeed whooped the Hawks by 36 points back on December 2, Van Gundy surely noticed when the Hawks (16-16) got waxed on Toronto’s floor the very next night, by 44 points… and what happened in that same building less than two weeks later. After such high hopes to start the month, a loss in Atlanta tonight would plummet the Pistons (15-19) to 12th in the LeBronference, the very bottom of the East’s Crab Barrel. “We’re in jeopardy right now,” said You Know Who.
With the curtains wide open, the Wizard of Osmosis is pulling on whatever levers he can find. Harris (16.3 PPG), the Pistons leading scorer, now comes off the bench, Stan Van turning to Tobias’ super-efficient sub Jon Leuer in the starting lineup. His play as a reserve (last 3 games: 23.3 PPG, 55.8 FG%, 52.9 3FG%, 8.3 RPG) has sparked the bench offensively, but Leuer’s effect on the starting-unit’s defensive intensity has yet to bear fruit.
The Pistons’ three-point barrage back on December 2 essentially ended the Hawks’ ability to distract viewers with their then-top-ranked defensive efficiency. Their slippage has them at 7th place in D-Rating entering today’s action, although still 2nd in the East, ahead of Milwaukee and Detroit.
Among the NBA’s top ten teams in D-Rating, only the Hawks and Pistons have a negative Net Rating, a tell-tale sign of offensive struggles. Behind Drummond, the Pistons, for their part, have also led the league with 84.5 D-Reb % in December (NBA-low 9.5 opponent second-chance PPG, only team allowing less than 10), so second-chances may be hard to come by for Atlanta, even for Dwight Howard (1 O-Reb in 25 minutes vs. DET on Dec. 2).
This suggests that the first shots need to be good ones. For Hawks’ ballhandlers Dennis Schröder, Malcolm Delaney, Tim Hardaway, Jr. and (yes) Kent Bazemore, it means knowing when to attack the paint, like when they’re guarded by Jackson instead of KCP, and when to find passing lanes, rather than forcing the issue when Drummond and Baynes form walls and seal off penetration.
Despite his considerable girth, Drummond (1.0 BPG) is decidedly not a shot-blocker, preferring to make stops by drawing charges and making steals when he’s not boxing out. He will be occupied with sealing off Howard and averting lob plays, so players on the opposite side of the floor from D8 need to be active, ready to receive the rock and finish plays from that side. Continuing to recover from a sore groin muscle sustained last week, Hardaway is a past-due target to get to the bucket, especially when KCP strays to help with Schröder.
Hardaway was 0-for-7 shooting over just 13 minutes versus his prior team, the Knicks, on Wednesday. And in the UM alum’s last meeting with the Pistons, he was a few more wayward clanks (0-for-6 3FGs) from being disowned by his assistant-coach father. He and Bazemore (3-for-11 FGs vs. DET on Dec. 2) need to make more cuts to the hoop and be prepared to produce more assists for Schröder (11 assists, 1 TO vs. DET) via interior buckets.
While Hawks foes like the Pistons have had a field day from the perimeter this month (NBA-high 40.5 opponent 3FG% in December; 11.6 opponent 3FGs per 100 possessions, 2nd-most in NBA), Atlanta continues its own slide in that area (8.3 3FGs per 100 and 31.6 3FG%, 3rd-worst in NBA).
If your team relies on your 6-foot-8 power forward, shooting 31.0 3FG% and rocking a swollen eye, to take the most three-point attempts, you’re not making it easier on your team to win games. Instead of allowing Millsap to think he’s somehow spreading the floor, allow him to work on Harris and Leuer inside.
The Hawks must feed the tandem of Howard and Millsap, and allow them to create better outside options for players paid to hit those shots, like Kyle Korver (3-for-5 3FGs, 1-for-5 2FGs in the OT win vs. NYK). Kyle’s last five triples have come by way of passes from either Howard, Millsap, or Mike Muscala.
Facing a back-to-back, Coach Bud sat Thabo Sefolosha (season-low 16.6 minutes) in the second-half of the loss against Detroit, and Baze was given a rest in the final quarter. So Detroit’s decision to go buckwild from deep (11-for-20 3FGs) was no accident, especially after a first-quarter test (5-for-6 3FGs) revealed the water was fine. Both Kent and Thabo should be healthy enough to contribute major minutes tonight, making perimeter looks on the back end of the clock tougher for the Pistons. Detroit’s 32.9 3FG% since that game (27th in NBA) is not much better than Atlanta’s 32.1% (28th).
Just as NBA opponents have figured out they should go ahead and let Atlanta fire away from outside, they’ve also learned not to bail out the poor-shooting Pistons with ticky-tack fouls. Detroit’s 18.0 personal fouls drawn (per 100 possessions) are the league’s lowest this month; their 19.8 FTAs per-100 in December are ahead of only Dallas’ 19.7. Plus, the lion’s share of those hacks are directed at Drummond, whose 44.2 FT% (41.1% this month) is actually a career-high.
One half-full way of looking at the Hawks’ late-December stretch is that they have not lost consecutive games since December 5. They also haven’t won back-to-back contests since December 9, or consecutive home games since November 16. But these are low bars that they can clear tonight.
Considering Bud’s hard-to-beat mentor (and the source of Van Gundy’s plumber philosophies) Gregg Popovich is swinging by on New Year’s Day, this is no time for the Hawks to resort to half-empty basketball. Let’s save all the drama tonight for the guys in the other locker room.
Hit Dem Folks! Let’s Go Hawks!