By: Will Burchfield
Before the Pistons tipped things off against the Cavaliers on Thursday night, Stan Van Gundy pulled aside Marcus Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The coach has struck a negative tone of late – “which is rare for me,” he quipped – and was sensing his message was wearing thin on his players.
He figured two of the Pistons veterans could help.
“So I (told them), “I’m going to coach, and I’ll coach with the same intensity, but you guys have to hold each other accountable,'” Van Gundy explained.
When the Pistons fell behind 27-12 in the first quarter and trudged into a timeout on the heels of a 20-2 Cleveland run, Morris took his cue.
“He just put his hand on my shoulder,” Van Gundy recalled, “and said, ‘I got this.’ And he really went after guys, challenging them to just go back in the locker room if they didn’t want to compete. Really, really did a good job, and then we came back and got ourselves in the game.”
After Morris’ rousing speech, the Pistons closed the quarter on a 10-2 run. Before the nine-minute mark of the second quarter, they had cut Cleveland’s lead to 31-28. They would go on to win 106-101, fueled by the fire that Morris lit.
“We weren’t playing the way we should, we weren’t prideful, we weren’t holding ourselves accountable,” said Reggie Jackson, “and that’s something he was honest about. I think we all locked in and listened and took constructive criticism.
“It really was just about us getting down and being Detroit, being nitty-gritty and attacking this game like we had some pride. To that point, we really weren’t showing up the way we should, so he let us have it and I think it kind of sparked us.”
So, what exactly did Morris’ speech sound like?
As Tobias Harris described, laughing, “Beep, beep, beep. He had a lot of F-bombs in there so, you know, he’s going to need to go to church on Sunday with me.
“But he definitely set the tone for the team and it’s no secret that right after that the lead starting changing, we started cutting it back a little bit and we found good energy and good flow. You need moments like that to push your teammates, so that’s a big (display of) leadership from him and for our team. That was huge.”
Both Jackson and Harris agreed that the message meant more coming from a teammate than a coach. That was Van Gundy’s intention, of course.
“It’s a different accountability when it comes from a player, especially someone that you put the work in with each and every day, a guy that you stand tall with throughout the entire season,” said Jackson. “When your brother on the court, your brother in arms, holds you accountable, it’s different than when your coach or your boss does it.
“It was a great speech and I’m happy that he stood up and gave it to us. Nobody was salty about it, we just came out and attacked the game with passion and we were able to get a win.”
When Morris laid into his teammates, challenging them to give more, he put his own neck on the line.
“You have to know when you voice your opinion like that, you also have to have your ducks in a row,” Harris said. “It puts pressure on yourself and Marcus is a guy who embraces that type of pressure. He knows when he says something like that, he’s going to have to go out there and fuel his energy and stick to his words to help us.”
Morris didn’t have his finest night offensively – just 12 points and three assists – but he walked the walk by competing like a dog. And his fierce effort showed up in the plus/minus category, where Morris finished plus-11, the second best mark among Pistons starters.
Vocal stands like the one Morris took on Thursday night haven’t been common this season for the Pistons.
“But in fairness to our guys, I don’t really give them a lot of opportunity,” said Van Gundy. “They’re coming into the timeout, I jump right in and — boom. I think it’s more effective when they sort of hold each other accountable.”
As much as it meant for the players to hear from one of their own, it meant even more to hear from Morris.
“Marcus is a man of very few words,” said Andre Drummond, “so when he does say something, it gets everybody’s attention. When he got going and said what he had to say to us on the bench, it really struck a match and got us going.”
Jackson is hoping that Morris’ speech and Thursday night’s win can help mold a strong team identity down the stretch.
“We just want to come out and be tough-nosed, tough-minded and leave it all out on the court each and every night,” he said. “Once the season’s over, we’ll see where we’re at, but every game has to be a playoff game for us or every game has to be a game against the Warriors or Cavs. We can’t let up. We have to go out here and challenge ourselves to be the best we can be as a team.”
Morris issued that challenge against Cleveland, and Detroit responded.