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Throughout the first half of the 2014-15 season, the three best point guards in the Eastern Conference have been Jeff Teague of the Atlanta Hawks, John Wall of the Washington Wizards and Kyle Lowry of the Toronto Raptors. Reasonable people can disagree as to which has been the best of the bunch, but you'd be hard-pressed to find too many folks ready to fight you to the death in support of another candidate. Over the last 15 games, though ... man, has anyone in the East been significantly better than Brandon Jennings?
The Detroit Pistons point man has looked like a completely different player since bench-and-sideline boss Stan Van Gundy's franchise-shifting decision to jettison underperforming forward Josh Smith, blossoming as the pick-and-roll-facilitating tip of the spear in SVG's four-out offensive system. The sterling run continued Wednesday, as Jennings repeatedly broke down the Orlando Magic's overmatched defense to create looks for himself and his teammates en route to a career-best and NBA-season-high assist total:
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Jennings finished with 21 dimes, two more than the previous top 2014-15 mark set by Rajon Rondo before the Boston Celtics traded him to the Dallas Mavericks, to go with 24 points on 10-for-21 shooting and just two turnovers in 33 minutes of work as the Pistons bested Van Gundy's former club, 128-118, at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
"[Jennings] was phenomenal tonight," Van Gundy said after the game, according to Noah Trister of The Associated Press. "He was getting to the lane and making plays. He was making his shots when he got them."
A couple of neat notes about Jennings' big night:
• Jennings is the first NBA player to post a 20-plus-point, 20-plus-assist game in more than five years. Steve Nash last pulled the trick on Nov. 9, 2009, while he was still with the Phoenix Suns;
• Jennings becomes just the third player to put up a 20-20 in a Piston uniform, joining Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas and '70s-and-'80s triggerman Kevin Porter, and the first Piston to pull it off in nearly 30 years;
• According to Basketball-Reference.com's Play Index tool, Jennings is just the fifth player since the 1985-86 season (as far back as B-R's archive goes) to notch both a 50-plus-point-scoring game — which he did in just his seventh NBA game, getting on the NBA map by dropping a double-nickel on the Golden State Warriors as a rookie with the Milwaukee Bucks — and a 20-plus-assist game. The other four? Andre Miller, Deron Williams, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and Stephon Marbury. Pretty decent island of swaggering misfit lead-guard toys, there.
Comparing the two performances, Jennings called his 20-20 "pretty killer," but wouldn't call it the best night of his career: "Fifty-five in three [quarters]? As a rookie? Nah."
Perhaps most importantly, it didn't really feel like Jennings was hunting for his own stats; he was just working the offense, taking what was there, and reaping the benefits of a plan that came together again and again and again.
... Well, OK, maybe there was a little bit of looking for numbers late in the game.
"Finding guys, guys are getting easy shots, guys are making shots," Jennings said, according to the AP. "It was one of those nights where you're like, 'I'm close to 19 [assists], I better get 20.'"
Two nights after a dismal shooting display in their Martin Luther King Jr. Day loss to the Atlanta Hawks, Detroit scorched the nets (52.1 percent shooting from the field, a 10-for-24 mark from 3-point land) and dominated on the interior (a whopping 70 points in the paint, a 20-14 edge in second-chance points) to notch both the franchise's highest point total in nearly seven years and the Pistons' 12th win in the last 15 games. The once-left-for-dead club now sits at 17-26, just one game behind the Charlotte Hornets for the East's No. 8 playoff spot.
To be fair, that's not necessarily the loftiest perch in league history. It's an awful lot better than where the Pistons sat just one month ago, though, and Jennings — often maligned in his NBA career for inefficient shot-jacking and insufficient playmaking — deserves an awful lot of the credit for that on-court improvement.
In his first 25 games, he averaged 12.6 points, 6.4 assists and 2.3 turnovers in 28.8 minutes per game, shooting just 36.8 percent from the field and 32.7 percent from the 3-point line. During Detroit's 15-game run, he's up to 20 points, 7.2 assists and just 1.9 turnovers on much-improved marks of 44 percent from the floor and 40.4 percent from beyond the arc — on 6.6 long-ball attempts in just 28.5 minutes per contest.
He's been the engine of Van Gundy's new supercharged version of Detroit muscle, an offense that's bombing 29.2 3-pointers per game since Smith shipped out and scoring a blistering 108.6 points per 100 possessions, the league's fourth-best mark during that span, behind only the rampaging Golden State Warriors, rising Phoenix Suns and Chris Paul-and-Blake Griffin-led Los Angeles Clippers. They've been even more devastating with Jennings at the controls, pouring in points at a 110.6-per-100 pace with him on the court, compared to a still good but comparatively pedestrian 105.6-per-100 clip when he sits.
And with every passing night — and especially when the nights include as much passing as this one did — Pistons players and fans' belief in Jennings' ability to carry the team to a brighter future continues to grow.
"Brandon has been outstanding," center Andre Drummond said after Detroit's recent win over the Toronto Raptors. "Just give him the keys. Let him drive."
And it's not just the young fellas like Drummond looking to Jennings, either, according to Vincent Goodwill Jr. of the Detroit News:
Before every game, Pistons veteran Caron Butler pulls point guard Brandon Jennings aside and says: "You have star talent and star capability. Lead us."
For the last month, he's done so with distinction. Whether he can keep it up and continue fulfilling the boundless promise of his early days in Milwaukee remains to be seen, but for now, Jennings' near-nightly star turns have Detroit looking dangerous in the East.
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