Detroit Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy took care of his close friend Steve Clifford pre-game by telling reporters the Charlotte Hornets have been the East’s best team of late.
Then Van Gundy’s players proved otherwise, emphatically for the first three quarters.
Don’t be fooled by the final 112-105 seven-point margin. The Pistons led by as many as 26 points and were drilling the Hornets when Clifford chose to empty his bench early in the fourth quarter.
What followed was odd and entertaining, but ultimately inconsequential. The deep subs went on a 20-1 run that forced Van Gundy to re-insert several of his starters at the end. So the final margin looked respectable, but that sure didn’t fool Clifford about what really happened.
He said his team looked unprepared and could do nothing defensively with Pistons point guard Reggie Jackson. Right on both counts. Jackson didn’t have great numbers (6-of-19 shooting for 17 points, plus seven assists), but his penetration was huge in discombobulating the Hornets’ defense.
That helped Pistons center Andre Drummond have a big game (18 points and 14 rebounds) after struggling against the Hornets in two previous losses this season. The attention the Hornets had to pay to Jackson meant Drummond was getting his touches in ideal spots to score. Hence, he was 9-of-14 from the field.
Remember Clifford’s preaching about getting the ball to the lane before attempting jump shots, because invariably those jump shots will be more open? That’s the sort of thing he learned working for Van Gundy on the Orlando Magic’s coaching staff. And that’s how Van Gundy’s team won this game.
Forward Marcus Morris seemed to constantly be open along the perimeter. He made eight of his 14 attempts, including 3-of-7 from 3-point range, for 20 points, plus seven rebounds.
Morris is a solid NBA player, but he’s not someone you’d anticipate blowing up an opponent.
The Pistons scored an absurd 72 points in the first half on 59 percent shooting from the field. The only reason the Hornets weren’t totally out of this game by then was point guard Kemba Walker’s preposterous shooting night.
Kemba Walker has to be in the discussion for the NBA’s Most Improved Player. If he played the first half of the season like the second half, there’s no question he would have been an All-Star.
Walker tied his career-high of six 3-pointers made by halftime. And he saved best for last, swishing a 49-foot buzzer-beater to end the half.
Walker is having such a season. As I’ve written previously, he has to be in the discussion for the NBA’s Most Improved Player. If he played the first half of the season like the second half, there’s no question he would have been an All-Star.
It goes against Clifford’s grain to concede games, but he did the wise thing by pulling the starters early in the fourth quarter. This was the first game of a back-to-back, with the Hornets playing the Bucks on Saturday in Milwaukee.
Why chase something that is probably uncatchable at the expense of energy for the next day? That’s the math of a late-season playoff race.
Even if you’re not really the best team in the East.