By: Will Burchfield
Stan Van Gundy said his players would own up to it, and indeed they did.
From Andre Drummond to Blake Griffin to Anthony Tolliver, the Pistons admitted they didn’t pour enough effort into their 118-103 loss to the Pelicans on Monday night.
They didn’t dive for loose balls. They didn’t get back in transition. They didn’t rotate on defense. They didn’t do any of the little things that together make a big difference.
“Obviously it’s a team game, but it starts with each of us individually making the choice to be selfless and to come out every single night and play as hard as we can. That should be our default. And right now, we’re having a little bit of inconsistencies with that,” said Tolliver.
That makes it two lackadaisical performances in a row for the Pistons, who on Sunday snoozed through a loss to the lowly Hawks. The good vibes produced by a five-game win streak following the Griffin trade have been all but snuffed out.
Offensive growing pains were to be expected with the addition of Griffin, but there’s no excuse for the team’s recent lack of effort on defense. The Pistons, who entered Monday night’s game allowing 103.3 points per game, tied for the seventh fewest in the NBA, have surrendered an average of about 115 over their last three. That would rank dead last in the league.
After Monday’s no-show, Van Gundy was at a loss. Whatever he told his players following Sunday’s loss clearly hadn’t gotten through. Adamant that they grasp the message — a message that quite honestly should go without saying — he turned to a phrase coined by his brother, Jeff Van Gundy.
“He puts it to me all the time, and it’s absolutely true in our case right now: You’ll win when you deserve to win. We haven’t deserved to win the last couple of games when you don’t bring the defense and the fight,” said Van Gundy.
In accordance with a season-long trend, the Pistons have followed up a strong stretch of play with an equally poor one. The acquisition of Griffin was supposed to help change that. It paid dividends at first, with the Pistons showing a renewed sense of energy, but the galvanizing effect seems to have worn off.
It’s like the honeymoon is over, and the Pistons aren’t ready to return to work.
“I just think the adjustment period is starting to come into effect,” said Drummond. “We played off excitement and energy the first few games that he was here, and now that we’ve kind of settled in it’s more about trying to figure out how to get past that first step.”
The impromptu offense was fun through the first couple games, mostly because the Pistons were winning. The players, Griffin included, chuckled at the fact they were running the same basic plays over and over while improvising the rest. It felt like recess.
But the lack of class time has caught up to them of late. There’s no way around the fact the Pistons have had just three practices in the 13 days since Griffin’s arrival.
Still, the last two losses have owed primarily to soft defense. Van Gundy could live with the letdown on Sunday — that happens over the course of an 82-game season. That it happened again on Monday was far more difficult to accept.
“Coming off a bad defensive night (Sunday) night, I would have expected a little bit more commitment than what we had,” said Van Gundy.
Drummond suggested the Pistons’ shooting struggles sapped their energy at the other end of the floor. He also raised the possibility of fatigue ahead of the All-Star break. Perhaps most interestingly, he wondered if the team got a little too high while riding a five-game win streak.
Either way, he called Detroit’s defensive play “inexcusable.”
The Pistons looked like a team that really wanted it in the immediate aftermath of the Griffin trade. They looked like a team willing — eager, even — to pay the price. They laid out for loose balls. They thrust their bodies in front of the basket. They got out, and got back, in transition. In doing so, they made up for their lack of polish in the X’s and O’s.
“Definitely at the beginning we were going out there and kind of playing with a nothing-to-lose mentality,” said Tolliver. “And when you do that, a certain amount of effort can win for you. We weren’t playing perfect basketball.”
No, but they were playing “winning basketball,” to borrow a phrase from Drummond.
“It’s just a toughness thing,” Drummond said.
That toughness was easy to summon when Griffin first arrived. It was a shake-up that provided a psychological boost, the kind a team needs this time of year. The Pistons gulped down the trade like an energy drink and surged to five straight wins.
But the dreaded crash is setting in.
“I thought for the first time we looked really tired tonight, at least since I’ve been here,” said Griffin.
So now comes the real challenge: Can the Pistons find extra adrenaline within? The team they have is the one they’ve got, and they’ve got a lot to learn in the weeks ahead. That’s Van Gundy’s charge, and it’s a big one. But any spark will have to come from the players, who need to light a fire while they’re still in the dark.
“We just have to play harder while we’re in this stretch of figuring everything out,” said Griffin. “We just have to play harder.”