AUBURN HILLS, MI — Detroit Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy gave his players a simple choice early this week.
With two days off between their Dec. 23 game in Atlanta and their Boxing Day home game against the Boston Celtics, they could either practice on Christmas Eve and spend Christmas Day with their families or do it the other way around.
This might be the last year they get that choice.
After unsurprisingly deciding to spend Christmas with their families, the Pistons starters came out flat in a 99-93 loss to Boston.
“We didn’t look like a team that had yesterday off,” Van Gundy said in his usual tone of disgust. “We looked like a team that practiced for six and a half hours.”
For much of the season, Van Gundy’s biggest problem has been trying to nurse a poor second unit through games by shortening his rotation and trying to keep at least one starter on the floor at all times. It’s worked to some extent – the Pistons put together a 9-3 stretch to move to 17-12 heading to Atlanta.
Now, though, the problem has flipped, with the starting lineup suddenly struggling to hang in games and needing to be bailed out by the bench. The Pistons survived to beat Chicago in four overtimes on Dec. 18 and rallied to win in Miami four days later.
They couldn’t pull out a win in Atlanta, though, and were doomed by bad starts to both halves on Saturday.
“Right now, our starters aren’t giving us a thing, and our bench is having to try to save us,” Van Gundy said. “We’ve had awful starts in the last three games, and today we had an awful third quarter. I don’t know what the problem is, but we didn’t take care of the ball and we didn’t pass it. Steve (Blake) passed it. That’s it.”
Against Boston, Detroit’s starting backcourt played like it was stuck in the mud. Reggie Jackson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope combined for 8-of-27 shooting and hit just 2-of-10 three-pointers. As for taking care of the ball, the pair finished with four assists and eight turnovers.
Jackson thought the problem was the turnovers – the Pistons had 13 in the first half alone – and Boston’s 46.4 percent shooting on the night.
“It’s hard to move the ball when you keep turning it over,” Jackson said. “Between the turnovers and all the shots they made, we were never able to run, which makes it difficult for me to attack and find open guys. You can’t run when you are always taking the ball out of the basket.”
Van Gundy, unsurprisingly, didn’t buy that line of reasoning, pointing to Blake’s six assists in 21 minutes.
“There were passes out there, and he didn’t see them – I don’t know why,” Van Gundy said. “They were using two guys to stop him from getting into the lane, so someone had to be open.”
Even the one starter that Van Gundy was willing to praise – Andre Drummond – had a rough statistical night. Drummond had his fifth 20/20 game of the season, finishing with 22 points and 22 rebounds, but it could’ve been bigger.
“I thought Andre played a pretty good game offensively, but he ended up 9-for-21,” Van Gundy said. “He was getting himself into position for good shots, but he couldn’t get them to stay in the basket. That happens. You just have to keep getting good looks and keep shooting them.”
Drummond’s five 20/20 games give him an enormous lead – Dwight Howard is the only other player on the board with one – and put him on pace for 13 this season. That would be the most in the last 30 years, topping the 12 by Kevin Willis in 1991-92.
“When you go into a game with Detroit, you have to focus on cutting down their number of second-chance points, where in most games you are trying to eliminate them,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “With Drummond out there, he’s going to get some no matter what you do, just because of his physical presence and his ability.”
No matter what Drummond does – and he’s still spending time on the bench to avoid intentional fouls – he’s going to need more help from his fellow starters.