Admit it, Pistons fans, you expected Detroit to lose Wednesday night. Wednesday night's home opener against the Utah Jazz was the exact type of game the Detroit Pistons of the past six years lose. A close game, a fourth-quarter collapse, players looking lost in crunch time - it had all the markings of what has made the Pistons one of the NBA's most hapless franchises for more than half a decade.
But something is different. Owner Tom Gores knows what he sees with this team, something special. Whatever it is, it has been on display in the first two games of the season - two games against quality opponents, and two wins keyed by Detroit's superior defensive effort.
The Pistons are now 2-0 for first time since 2008 and, more remarkably, it's the first time the team has been two games over .500 at any point since March 13, 2009. This is literally already the winningest team since Tom Gores bought the franchise.
Yes, it is too early to draw any firm conclusions, but victories against the Atlanta Hawks and Jazz should not be discounted. The Hawks had the best record in the Eastern Conference last season, and the Jazz were one of the most dangerous teams in the NBA after the All-Star break.
Through two games, Detroit's expected high-powered offense is a no-show. The team is shooting just 39.4 percent and is playing at one of the slowest paces in the NBA. A lot of that has to do with Detroit's opponents. The Hawks had the sixth-best defense in the NBA last season, and the young Jazz team had the NBA's best defense in the second half of the season.
The Pistons struggled on offense, but now seem to have a team with enough defensive ability to weather scoring droughts and disrupt opponents and make them work for points. The Pistons rank No. 11 in defensive efficiency in this extremely young season, according to NBA.com. This is in large part thanks to absolutely dominating the boards. Detroit has the third-best rebounding percentage in the NBA, thanks in large part to Andre Drummond (14.5 rebounds per game). By controlling the boards, Detroit has virtually eliminated their opponents' ability to get second-chance points. The Pistons have only given up 4.5 second-chance points per game, the lowest mark in the NBA.
Detroit has also completely transformed its perimeter defense, which was one of numerous trouble spots last season. The Pistons have held high-powered scorers such as Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, Gordon Hayward and Rodney Hood largely in check.
Nowhere is that more apparent than with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Already established as Detroit's best defender, he seems to have found another gear in his third year. Caldwell-Pope kept the NBA's most dangerous 3-point threat in the East, Korver, silent in Atlanta and secured the game-securing block against Alec Burks against Utah.
Reggie Jackson might be struggling on offense so far, but he seems committed on defense, consistently fighting through screens and staying in front of his man. With Jackson and Caldwell-Pope along with Stanley Johnson and Marcus Morris, Detroit has the lateral quickness, size and strength to constantly switch on pick-and -rolls and ably guard both the wing and the big man interchangeably.
While the Pistons big men have struggled to guard the paint, the team is holding opponents to 32 percent shooting outside of the paint.
While so much focus was spent on how Stan Van Gundy's four-out, one-in offensive system would supercharge Detroit's offense, it's really the defensive principles he's installed that have made the difference through two games. He finally has the players that can execute his system, and it's the reason Detroit has its best record in 6.5 years. With its sights set on the playoffs, it's only with defense that this team will reach its goals.
This story originally appeared in The Detroit Free Press.