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Pistons at Nuggets: How much did the Pistons defense really contribute to fourth quarter comeback?

That, plus more game notes.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

As Laz Jackson, Ben Quaglita, and a few others mentioned last night, I was covering the game with the media crew in Denver for the Nuggets game.

Ideally I’d like to have come away with it having a few concrete stories to be able to toss together today. But with the season winding down and the remaining narratives already hashed and re-hashed on a daily basis, that wasn’t really the case.

But instead, there were some smaller tidbits that I found interesting. So consider this more of a brain dump from throughout the game.

That second quarter sucked

As I mentioned in the quick recap last night, there were some pretty astounding numbers in that second quarter.

The Nuggets bench outscored the Pistons bench 24-8. They shot 16 free throws, with just two attempts for the Pistons. They blocked six Pistons shots.

Each one of those was its own form of impressively bad. But I also missed another whopper. Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin combined for 2-16 shooting in the quarter. Whew. And it’s kinda tough for bench players to contribute much scoring when those two are bricking that many shots.

They were the biggest driver in the Pistons’ failure to score, leading to the team shooting 33 percent in the period. But their counterparts still did their best to help. For instance:

Hey guys, it’s really nice of you to keep getting Eric Moreland involved and all, but kind of not really.

It takes some work to get blocked six times by the Nuggets in a single quarter. Their big man rotation was Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap, Mason Plumlee, and Trey Lyles. Those aren’t exactly big time shot blockers. The Nuggets leading shot blocker is Millsap with just 1.2 per game.

The Nuggets did a nice job defending without fouling and just sitting back to take advantage of some bad Pistons offense. The Pistons weren’t able to do that. 16 free throws in a single quarter.

The two most frustrating ones came from Luke Kennard on three point attempts. So it’s easy to nail Kennard for a bad defensive game, especially when you see Jamal Murray go nuts with 15 points in the third quarter. But most of that work was allowed by Ish Smith. The rest of Kennard’s game was fine defensively. Just those two fouls were awful.

Drummond’s third quarter benching

When Drummond picked up his third foul in the third quarter, Stan Van Gundy pulled him out of the game. I was sitting next to Keith Langlois, which is always a valuable experience. I hadn’t noticed that Dre was being pulled with only his third foul until Keith commented on it.

So why did SVG make the move? Foul trouble concerns? Drummond had a pretty shitty sequence leading up to it, with a bad travel followed closely by a bad foul on a Nikola Jokic three point attempt:

So perhaps SVG was just pissed?

The Pistons brought in Tolliver rather than Moreland, who played alongside Griffin when Dre subbed out in the first half. And the offense came to life, nailing six three pointers in the final eight minutes of the period.

Keith asked SVG about the move after the game and he said, “Yeah, I wanted to get some more shooting around Blake because they had really started to take the room away.”

And he was right. In between the bad Drummond travel and foul, Reggie Bullock was left trying to finish over a pair of defenders and Ish Smith committed a weird turnover. The offense looked really bad and that shift seemed to fix it.

Van Gundy is often criticized for his rigidity and unwillingness to make in-game adjustments. This is a clear example of rotation shift in response to a problem that fixed it.

At the same time, it’s also an example the complexities of small adjustments like this. SVG probably went Blake-Moreland in the first half to counter Millsap-Jokic defensively. Matching Tolliver up on Millsap, the Nuggets went to work on him:

Those isolations opened things up for Jamal Murray to start going nuts with his big third quarter.

Despite knocking down seven three pointers in the third quarter, the Pistons were only able to play the Nuggets to a draw. The rotation move that fixed one problem still created a whole new one.

The point being that your rotation complaints about Stan Van Gundy probably aren’t very valid. Sure, your idea may help one thing but there’s this whole other thing that you might not be taking into account.

The fourth quarter comeback

The Pistons were able to at least make it something of a game thanks to holding the Nuggets to 22 fourth quarter points - the only period they held them under 30. It would have an even lower point total had it not been for some Pistons defensive breakdowns in the final two minutes and a half.

For the first nine and a half minutes of the final period, the Pistons held them to 5-13 shooting, no made three pointers, just one free throw, forced a whopping six turnovers, and only allowed 11 points. Yeah.

So what was the difference in the defense? Stan Van Gundy had a three word response in his post game comments: “We played hard.”

Andre Drummond said, “We finally started playing. We started playing as a unit, we made them uncomfortable defensively. But like I said, it wasn’t enough to win the game. But definitely something we need to build on...we need to keep playing with that same energy when the ball goes up in the air.”

Dwight Buycks said, “We dug ourselves a hole so it was more just fight, don’t let up...we just needed that same energy in the first and second when we let down.”

The common theme was energy and effort. Which is probably true to an extent. This defensive sequence from Stanley Johnson was mighty nice:

And Drummond made a couple of nice plays defensively:

But I’m not sure it’s thaaaaat true as a whole. Those are pretty much the only plays where it seemed like effort drove those defensive outcomes. The rest were just the Nuggets missing shots they made earlier in the game and committing some weird turnovers. Check these out:

Kind of like the Nuggets just sat back and took advantage of bad Pistons offense in the second quarter, that’s pretty much what the Pistons did to get back in it. It would be as accurate to chalk it up to the Nuggets nearly choking the game away as the Pistons’ energy getting them back in it.

After all, here’s once the game really got to Don’t Look Now territory:

Not going to finish off a comeback allowing layups like that.

Dwight Buycks hero ball

As frustrating as Reggie Jackson’s hero ball could be, Buycks’ play was a great reminder of how important a point guard who isn’t scared to shoot is to this team’s offense.

His play also opened things up for Drummond inside, as he had his best offensive quarter of the game with 10 points on 4-5 shooting in an otherwise inefficient game.

But the most important part of this section is that when it was clear that Buycks would get the chance to close the game out, Keith mentioned “So SVG’s really going to ride Buycks to the finish.” Accidental puns may be the best puns.


Jon Leuer was still in a walking boot and walking with a limp. I only passed Reggie Jackson walking a couple of times, but he seemed to be walking well.

Reggie Bullock warmed up at halftime with his knee wrapped being iced, but it didn’t seem to impact him during the game. His knee and back are apparently still sore from a car accident last weekend. Fortunately it wasn’t any worse - Bullock deserves some luck and to finish this season healthy.

Good news about Gary Harris: after a scary spill on an awkward landing after a dunk, X-rays came back negative and it’s just a sprain/strain that has him on a day-to-day basis. Glad it wasn’t worse, it looked like it could have been nasty.

Physical Drummond

Drummond mentioned after the game that he was trying to get into Jokic’s chest late since he wasn’t a shot blocker, but it looked like Drummond played pretty physical throughout.

He had these two plays in particular:

That elbow seemed to be driven out of frustration, as Jokic was bringing the ball back on a Dre miss. Then shortly after, Drummond responded by getting a technical foul shortly after a missed dunk.

Jokic and Julius Randle got into it in the Nuggets’ previous game, so it got me wondering if Jokic might be developing a habit of irritating opposing players.


Pistons continue their road trip tomorrow night in Portland against a Trail Blazer team trying to cling to the third seed in the West. Which is probably the toughest part about this road trip: not only do the Pistons’ opponents have something to play for, they have critical things to play for.

The Jazz have nearly been unbeatable since Rudy Gobert’s return, going 21-4 since he returned from injury and getting the team into the playoff mix. The Nuggets couldn’t afford to lose this one after letting the Lakers game get away from them. Portland has an 11 game win streak over which Damian Lillard is averaging 31.7 points per game on 62 percent true shooting percentage.

Even if things had gone differently and the Pistons managed to stick in the playoff picture, this stretch would have still been a brutal one.