AUBURN HILLS — Stan Van Gundy tried to say nice things about his team Wednesday night. He really did.
In the bottom of his heart, he knew his Detroit Pistons deserved some praise for overcoming a 16-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat the Phoenix Suns in overtime.
It wasn’t easy for a man who demands hard work from his teams.
“I don’t want to get going too much, because we did win the game, and I don’t want this to turn negative,” Van Gundy said after the 127-122 victory. “But I’ve never had to make that many defensive adjustments in a game in my career, all trying to find a scheme that would work without my players making any effort.”
Phoenix didn’t have Tyson Chandler (hamstring) or Markieff Morris (bruised knee), but still led 98-82 early in the fourth quarter.
“We tried changing matchups, we tried switching, we tried flashing hard to the ball, we tried everything,” Van Gundy said. “We even went zone for a while, and that didn’t even slow them down. Nothing will generally work if the team won’t play hard.”
Van Gundy wouldn’t even make excuses for Andre Drummond, who ended up guarding small forwards when Phoenix went small.
“It was tough for him, because there was no one for him to really guard out there,” Van Gundy said. “Most of the time, we just put him on the worst three-point shooter on the floor, and hoped it worked out.”
Drummond’s bigger problem, though, continues to be free throw shooting. He went six for 17 against Phoenix and has now missed 34 free throws in three games. That’s nine more than Stephen Curry missed in the entire 2014-15 season.
Drummond did manage to send the game to overtime by hitting two free throws with 12 seconds left in regulation, but spent significant periods of time on the bench to avoid intentional fouls.
“I should have never had him on the floor at the end there, because it meant they could foul him on a pick-and-roll,” Van Gundy said. “That’s why we went with Aron (Baynes) in overtime, because right now, if Andre is on the floor, we can’t run our offense without them putting him on the line.
“It’s becoming a significant problem.”
The Pistons did outscore Phoenix 30-14 in the final 9:22 of regulation, then got three stops in the final 35 seconds of overtime.
“We just had a burst of energy,” said former Sun Marcus Morris. “We knew we still had a chance to win, but we had to start playing defense. That’s when we finally started playing hard.”
The Pistons had a great time offensively, with four of the five starters scoring at least 22 points and Reggie Jackson finishing with the first 30-point, 15-assist game by a Piston since Isiah Thomas in 1988.
“Reggie was just tremendous,” Van Gundy said. “Tonight was one of those games where we put the ball in his hands and let him take over the game. He wasn’t perfect – he had a couple tough plays at the end when everyone was out of gas – but he played a great game leading the offense.”
Suns coach Jeff Hornacek agreed that Jackson played well, but wasn’t too happy with his own team’s defense down the stretch.
“Reggie Jackson is a very good player, and that’s the second time this year he has dominated us in the fourth quarter,” Hornacek said. “We couldn’t stop anybody, though. We just let them go through us without any resistance.”
As it turned out, the Pistons were able to win the game with 15 minutes of defensive effort, even though no one could explain quite what got it started.
“I can’t pinpoint it,” Jackson said. “Everybody just turned it on and decided to care.”
Van Gundy, though, shook his head, thinking of all the futile changes he had made.
“After all that, we went back to our normal defense, and our guys finally decided to try,” he said. “That’s the whole secret to playing defense in this league – the players have to care enough to make an effort. They loved playing offense. It took them awhile to decide to play defense.”