Andre Drummond expected to resume his battle with Dwight Howard Monday night.
Instead, he ran into a much tougher opponent – his own psyche.
On paper, it looks like a great night. Drummond had 24 points and 13 rebounds, Howard only managed eight points and 10 rebounds, and the Pistons beat the Rockets 116-105.
The problem is right there in the box score, though. No, not the fact that he only played 27 minutes – that was due in great part to early foul trouble that didn’t hurt the Pistons. Even with him sidelined for a large chunk of the first half after two early fouls, Detroit led 64-41 at the intermission.
Move over a few more columns, and you’ll see it. Drummond attempted 18 free throws and made four. Ten of the misses came in the third quarter, including nine in a hideous stretch of basketball where the Rockets intentionally fouled him on six straight possessions.
In just over two minutes of game time, which seemed like hours in actual time, Drummond shot 12 free throws. He made three before Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy resorted to having his team commit a foul so that he could get his franchise center off the floor.
“I can’t leave him in there at that point,” Van Gundy said. “If we’re playing good defense, and he’s at least making one out of two, we can roll with it. Having Andre on the floor means that our defense can keep us in a game if we’re getting one point per possession.
“But he was 4 of 18. You can’t win a basketball game when you are getting four points on nine possessions.”
Despite the win, Drummond did not speak to the media after the game, appearing to have left during Van Gundy’s post-game press conference.
This is not a new problem for him. There are 1,428 players in NBA history who have shot at least 500 free throws, and he ranks last at 39.5 percent.
That is significantly worse than guys who were legends for their inability from the line. Chris Dudley once went one for 18 from the line in a game, and in a different game, went 0-for-5 in one trip, thanks to three lane violations by the opposition. He shot 45.8 percent for his career.
Wilt Chamberlain, who threatened to punch people if they intentionally fouled him late in games and who switched to shooting underhanded in an attempt to make something, was a 51.1 percent shooter over his long career.
Even Detroit’s last great center, Ben Wallace – a man who once missed 15 of 20 free throws in one quarter – broke 40 percent for his career.
Drummond worked with a shooting coach during the summer, and it seemed to pay off. He looked better at the line in the preseason, and in Detroit’s first two regular-season games, he went 14-for-21, a perfectly adequate 66.7 percent.
There was another stretch earlier this month where he went 11-for-19 over four games. That’s not Steph Curry or Elena Delle Donne, but 59.7 percent is well ahead of Van Gundy’s cut-off point.
In the last four games, though, things have come unglued. He has hit just seven of 32 attempts – 21.9 percent. He went 2 for 11 Sunday against New Jersey as the Pistons blew a big lead, and Monday night’s ugliness helped the Rockets move the margin from 23 points to just four.
“That’s every basketball player’s dream,” Van Gundy said. “The Rockets got to play offense, walk over and foul a guy, then stand around and watch him miss free throws. They are playing offense 100 percent of the time using zero energy on defense. In the meantime, we’re playing defense without ever getting to play offense, and we aren’t scoring any points.”
It certainly is not fun to watch. The fans booed the Bang-The-Drum strategy just as loudly Monday as they did when it was Wallace making endless trips to the line a decade ago. The Rockets would run a normal possession, but as soon as the ball got into Detroit’s hands, two players would run over and grab Drummond.
Everyone would trudge down the floor and line up while Drummond tried to figure out some kind of rhythm. One shot would be short left, and the next would inevitably be long right. The Rockets would grab the rebound and start the process again.
They started again in the fourth quarter as soon as Detroit was in the bonus, but Van Gundy pulled Drummond after he missed three straight from the line.
The problem for the Pistons is that the math works. As Van Gundy said, a team has a chance to win when they are scoring one point per possession, but over his career, two free throws from Drummond won’t even get Detroit 0.8 points. The way he is shooting right now, he isn’t even giving them a half-point per possession.
“It just kills your momentum dead,” Van Gundy said. “We were in a rhythm, and then we’re standing around and not getting anything, and even when he came out, we couldn’t get anything going. It just turns the entire momentum of the game around.”
The Nets put him on the line 11 times, and the Rockets upped that to 18. DeAndre Jordan is shooting 25 free throws some nights for the Clippers, and he is a slightly better shooter than Drummond. Teams have not bothered in the past because the Pistons were easy to beat in other ways, but now they are 9-9 after a tough November schedule, so it becomes attractive.
If Drummond does not find a consistent stroke, there will be some long, ugly Pistons games. They will not only happen this winter but also for the length of the max deal that both sides plan for him to sign next summer.