That headline is not clickbait or hyperbole - your Detroit Pistons, quite literally, are the best team in the league in the fourth quarter:
That’s the best fourth-quarter net rating in the league, buoyed by the No. 4 offensive rating and the No. 4 defensive in the league. Yes, that’s the best individual ORTG and DRTG the Pistons have for any quarter:
Knowing the Pistons have played well in the clutch is one thing, but to have it laid out numerically is another. (Also, knowing the Pistons have started games slowly is one thing, but seeing them have the worst DRTG in the league in the first quarter is another - but it’s a happy day on Detroit Bad Boys.)
So the obvious question is, “How?”
Slower, isolation-heavy play benefits the Pistons on both sides of the floor.
Accordingly, the Pistons slow down the pace in the fourth quarter (they average 98.27 possessions per game, but that drops to a pace of 96.51 possessions in the fourth quarter). More importantly, most teams ALSO start to utilize more isolation and PNR sets - sets the Pistons are better equipped to defend than in the past, thanks to the addition of Avery Bradley and the elevated play of Stanley Johnson.
In fourth quarters, more tenacious perimeter defense, seeing simpler offensive sets, combined with improved effort from Andre, are what key the Pistons’ best individual DRTG for any quarter. It’s one thing to know that the Pistons have a DRTG of 99.4. It’s another to see what that looks like down the stretch of games.
Personally, it’s easier to just show you:
The biggest thing you immediately notice is that Marcus Smart is bringing the ball up the court, even when Kyrie Irving is on the floor. The Boston Celtics fear Avery Bradley so much that they actively take the ball out of their best player’s hands at the beginning of their most important possessions. Yes, Smart is also red-hot this game, but he’s not breaking down the Pistons, he’s just making otherwise questionable (he’s shooting 28.9 percent from three this season) shots.
The Celtics’ fastest and easiest basket comes when they don’t let the Pistons get set on defense. However, that’s the exception that proves the rule in a close game. Other than that, you can see the offense slow down to match the scenario. Screens become perfunctory. Off-ball movement lessens. Only having to defend one or two actions enables the Pistons to be more aggressive, with or without the lead.
The Celtics turn the ball over for an And-1, then don’t convert off of a Pistons turnover due to some EXCELLENT transition defense from Stanley Johnson. There’s a questionable call to give Kyrie some free throws, but Boston doesn’t even take advantage of that possession fully.
If you let Avery Bradley buy time for Andre Drummond to diagnose what’s going on in front of him, you’ll have a hard time beating the Pistons.
Then there’s the Pistons offense in the clutch. The Pistons go from a democracy (the DHO-heavy, motion offense) to an autocracy (The Reggie Jackson PNR show, currently in its third season).
They spend 7.2 innings throwing splitters, curves, and sliders, then crank it up to 98 for the last inning and a third. It's remarkable— Lazarus Jackson (@lazchance) November 28, 2017
No, it’s not as pretty as Andre hitting cutters backdoor from the elbows, or Bradley rocketing off a DHO, but just like a real autocracy, it’s efficient at accomplishing its goals - run the clock, score, repeat.
A steady diet of Reggie Jackson-Andre Drummond PNR’s results in floaters in the lane and layups for Jackson, forces the Celtics into pre-switching (offering Tobias a mismatch in the post), and creates an open corner three for Stanley Johnson (that he missed, but you get the point). Yes, Reggie turns the ball over once and is bailed out by the referees once, but part of the reason you put the ball in his hands is because he can create contact and get bailed out by the referees.
A motion-esque playcall shows you a reason why the Pistons return to the PNR in crunch-time: Andre ends up with the ball in the post with six seconds on the shot clock - definitely not an ideal spot. Because he was playing out of his mind, he turns it into an And-1, but his first shot is heavily contested by Al Horford, and that possession easily could have been less fruitful.
You’ll notice that there are precious few easy buckets thrown in there - which makes sense, it’s crunch-time in a close game against one of the league’s best defenses. The motion offense the Pistons had run for the previous three-and-a-half quarters CAN produce those easy buckets - but it produces those against a defense that’s not as locked-in as an opponent will be in crunch-time. To torture the baseball metaphor some more: If you throw two-seam fastballs for three innings, the second time through the lineup, batters are going to know what’s coming and adjust accordingly, no matter HOW fast you throw the ball.
Normally, this is the part where I’d hedge, and tell you that although the Pistons are playing really well in the clutch right now, it probably won’t continue, and that other teams will be better at the end of the year. But honestly? I was damn sure they would lose this game, just like I was damn sure they would lose the Golden State game, just like I was pretty sure they wouldn’t beat Oklahoma City on the road after the Thunder beat the Warriors. This team keeps exceeding my expectations.
* Swigs from Hypnowheel’s jug of Pistons Kool-Aid *
There’s no reason the Pistons won’t continue to be the best fourth-quarter team in the league. Why couldn’t they be?