The last preseason game is always a bit of a farce, and that was never truer than Friday night at the Palace of Auburn Hills. With the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks scheduled to play again on Tuesday in the regular-season opener, neither team wanted to give anything away in an exhibition game.
Still, in an 115-87 win, Stan Van Gundy might have found something important.
Mike Budenholzer didn’t even try to hide his disdain for the game, leaving Al Horford, Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap and Tiago Splitter at home, while Thabo Sefolosha and Jeff Teague made the flight but didn’t get onto the floor.
Van Gundy didn’t go quite as far, but Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Ersan Ilyasova all sat out while Andre Drummond only played 18 minutes.
Still, while the Hawks were content to go through the motions, a Piston jumped out at Van Gundy. Steve Blake is hardly new to the NBA, and the Pistons coach knows what he can do, but, due to a concussion, the 35-year-old was making his preseason debut against Atlanta.
Blake played like it was Game 7 of the NBA Finals, dishing out 12 assists in 24 minutes and leading Detroit to 59 points in his two quarters of action.
“He made a big impact tonight, because once he got into the game, everyone started making passes,” Van Gundy said. “You see that in this league. Someone comes into the game, gets the ball moving and suddenly, every guy on the floor is looking for passes.
“Then you see guys moving without the ball because they know that if they get open, they will get rewarded. That’s something you love to see as a coach.”
Blake might have missed the first seven preseason games, but it didn’t take long for him to get caught up.
“The guys were great out there at making shots, getting to the right spots, making my job easier where I just have to find them and play basketball,” Blake said. “It was a lot of fun. I’m glad to be back out there.”
Like his coach, Blake knows that the Pistons will have to move the ball for their offense to work. With four perimeter players surrounding Andre Drummond, the point guard has to keep the three 3-point shooters active, or teams will just sag into the middle and take away the pick-and-roll that is going to be the cornerstone of Detroit’s offense.
“For us to be successful this year, that’s the way it has to be,” Blake said. “We’ve got to do it together. There’s no other way for us. We’ve got a few players who can go one on one, things like that, but overall, the ball has to be moving, and we’ve got to shoot the ball well.”
On Friday, that was a little easier, as the Hawks spent much of the game camped out in a zone defense—not wanting to waste enough energy to play man-to-man. That let Blake move the ball around the perimeter, and got his teammates into the action.
“There are two quick ways to build team chemistry in this league,” Van Gundy said. “You can pass the ball, and you can play defense. Once you get one or both of those things going, your teammates will start to pick it up, and you’ll bond as a team.”
Van Gundy has his roster set, with a few possible late adjustments—the Pistons announced after the game that they had signed UConn guard Ryan Boatright—and he knows what it will take to win the regular season.
“If we play like we did tonight, where the ball moves, and we get back on defense, we’re going to be pretty good,” he said. “If we start going one-on-one all of the time and don’t get back, we won’t be any good.
“That’s pretty much how it works.”