For a moment, the embarrassment in the Palace was audible. The Detroit Pistons had just fallen into a 15-point deficit against the Cleveland Cavaliers on their home court with only a few minutes left to go in the first quarter.
It wasn’t that the defense was looking flat-footed. It wasn’t that the Pistons offense was settling for bad mid-range jumpers. It was the fact that Cavs suddenly turned the Palace into a live And-1 mixtape highlight reel. LeBron James had just destroyed the rim with a dunk, and after the “oohs” had subsided, you could hear embarrassed grumbling making its way around the court.
Being in the arena last night, you could sense the showmanship building for the Cavs in the first quarter. At one point, when Ish Smith got switched onto Kyrie Irving, he paced back, made a one-handed, between-the-legs dribble, smiled, then made Ish jump out of his shoes on a ball fake in the post for an easy layup. From my seats on the opposite end, even I could see the open lanes for LeBron to destroy the rims with his dunks. After a particularly vicious two-handed slam, LeBron swung around and did a chin-up. It was hard to hear the whistle (for the technical foul he got) over the crowd.
I was already texting my wife saying I’d be home early. There were five minutes or so left in the first quarter.
I’m fortunate enough to sit in the section behind the Pistons bench (12 or so rows back), which means I get to watch Stan Van Gundy go ballistic on a regular basis. After the LeBron dunk, he exploded. There was a vein in his forehead that became visible from my seats. I could literally see the vein filling with blood as he screamed at Reggie Jackson and the bench. For a moment, I thought he would explode. He called a timeout to, I presume, call his doctor.
As the Pistons walked back to their bench, the body language was not trending in the right direction. Tobias Harris, Andre Drummond, and Stanley Johnson had thousand-yard stares, like they had just seen a dead body. Only Ish Smith and Marcus Morris looked to be visibly fired-up. Then I missed this.
SVG says Marcus Morris came into the huddle after 27-12 start, told SVG "I got this," and laid into his teammates. Wow.— Jake Chapman (@JakeChapmanNBA) March 10, 2017
I blame Henry Ellenson, the bearded, tall assistant coach, and the other insanely tall and super swoll trainer guy. Their job during timeouts is to basically serve as a wall for us fans. Thankfully, Tobias filled in some of the blanks for us postgame:
To be honest, trying to frame the rest of the night through the lens of a rational Pistons fan is difficult.
From a basketball perspective, the defensive intensity certainly increased and we stopped switching every single Kyrie screen. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope deserves max money just for his tricks on getting around screens. He’s a one-man clinic in staying on a guy’s hip through all types of picks. The defense on LeBron sagged, suckering him into more jump shots and threes, which (thankfully) weren’t falling (minus Jon Leuer, who insisted on checking LeBron tight and getting bullied throughout the game. He needs to go on like a basketball retreat at this point, because the dude’s game is looking lost from what it was in late December-early January).
Offensively, the pace was getting pushed, and it started with Ish Smith’s intensity. After getting put on blast by multiple Kyrie highlights, he made a point to smoke past Irving baseline, leading to a foul and free throws. On the next possession, Irving went up to Ish and nudged him with a smile, as if to say “Ok, I get it.” After a few more layups, Ish hit a buzzer-beater three-pointer that cut the lead from 10 to seven to end the first quarter. He screamed at the crowd and dapped up the fans courtside.
You sensed this was going to become a battle.
As the game went on, the ball swung quicker. Passes were crisper and the offense developed a flow. Andre started making plays with huge tip-ins, and Reggie started hitting 2015-Reggie-esque shots in the lane. Tobias, Marcus, and KCP were making plays and hitting big shots.
The Pistons scored the first 13 points of the fourth quarter and never looked back. Much like the win against Chicago, SVG saved his Reggie-Drummond pick and roll offense for the fourth quarter, and Reggie closed out the game with huge buckets and free throws.
The shift in tenor and tone was palpable. After an embarrassing first quarter, you could see the new body language. This team was NOT going to lose this f***ing game.
After the Pistons to decide to give a damn about the game, and Marcus and Ish got fired up, there was a contagious energy in focus and accountability. Reggie was animated on the bench in the second and third quarters, with the other guys on the bench. At one point, he came off in the third quarter and walked up and down the bench pounding his heart, saying “Show some of this! We gotta show this!” Baynes and Drummond were constantly off the bench cheering for one another, not just for buckets, but for rebounds.
Stanley Johnson would grab Reggie’s head coming out of timeouts in the fourth quarter and point to his chest.
The message - “You gotta lead us to this win” - was loud and clear.
This past week, a few key NBA writers have talked about the Pistons “chemistry problems” (sup Zach Lowe. sup Matt Moore). Even most of the DBB writers will agree, the trade deadline revealed the Pistons potential long-term chemistry issues with their two key building blocks, Reggie and Andre.
But what I saw last night was a team that actually had chemistry, that held each other accountable. A team that picked guys up when they weren’t hitting shots, and cheered when they were. The whole damn Pistons bench stood for the final three minutes of the game, even before the crowd was on their feet for the end.
So while everyone else in NBA-land is writing this team off, what if they’re finally coming together?