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Sure, there was no shame in dropping a three-point decision on the road to the engulfed-in-flames, styling-on-fools, Eastern Conference-leading Atlanta Hawks last Friday. But as we watched them come out pancake-flat against the Toronto Raptors on Monday night, letting Jonas Valanciunas score seemingly at will and allowing Kyle Lowry to drop dimes all over the place, it seemed like the Detroit Pistons might have begun the process of coming back to Earth after reinventing themselves and ripping off seven straight wins following the waiving of forward Josh Smith.
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But Stan Van Gundy kept tinkering with his lineups in search of stops, and Brandon Jennings kept flipping up hopeful floaters and off-the-bounce jumpers that seemed doomed until they splashed through, and before you knew it, Detroit had ripped off a 24-9 mid-third-quarter run to take the lead and make the die-hards at the Air Canada Centre feel a bit queasy about the Raps' persistently permissive defense. The two squads played inside a phone booth in the fourth quarter, with the entire deciding stanza contested within a two-possession margin and Detroit holding a one-point lead after an Amir Johnson putback made it 109-108 with 1:12 remaining.
With the lead on the line, Lowry — December's Eastern Conference Player of the Month, a deserving candidate for an All-Star berth (even if the campaign's getting to be a bit much) and the tip of Dwane Casey's spear — combined with Johnson to pressure Jennings on a high screen-and-roll. For a second there, it looked like the trap was going to scuttle Detroit's possession, giving Toronto the ball back with a chance to regain control. Unfortunately for the Raptors, though, this new-look iteration of the Pistons seems to handle pressure pretty darn well:
Lowry and Johnson did force Jennings into a cough-up, but the point guard was able to retain possession in the scramble and shuffle the ball over to forward Jonas Jerebko, who swiftly swung it to Jodie Meeks, who caught, rose and fired with just two seconds left on the shot clock. The sharpshooting guard's triple try swished through — his only 3-point make in four tries on the night — to give the Pistons a four-point lead with 53.1 seconds remaining. (That's the way to earn your money, Jodie.)
Toronto refused to go down quietly, though, as Lowry drilled a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to one with 42 ticks left before again pressuring Jennings into giving up the ball late in the shot clock, leading to a missed heave by Pistons sophomore Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The Raps' triggerman missed a good look at a go-ahead runner, though, leading to a pair of KCP free throws that put Detroit up 114-111, limiting Toronto to one last shot to equalize. This time, it was Lowry who'd be on the receiving end of some unwelcome pressure defense:
No, your eyes didn't deceive you. That was Brandon Jennings picking Kyle Lowry's to seal a three-point win on the road over the East's No. 2 seed, then emphatically spiking the ball as he exited the court to put an exclamation point on Detroit's ninth win in 10 games. This is how drastically things have changed for the Detroit Pistons: Brandon Jennings is now making game-winning defensive plays.
It was only fitting for Jennings to end the game with the ball after carrying the Pistons offense all night, scoring a game-high 34 points on 11-for-22 shooting (4-for-8 from 3-point range, 8-for-9 from the foul line) to go with 10 assists, two rebounds, two steals and just two turnovers in 33 1/2 minutes:
The sterling performance continued Jennings' largely fantastic run of form during the Pistons' resurgence. The Compton, Calif., product, often derided during his career for his flagging shooting percentages and inefficient offensive game, has soared over the past 10 contests, averaging 20.3 points on 47/42.2/76.9 shooting splits, seven assists against just 1.7 turnovers, 2.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals in only 27.8 minutes per game. His Player Efficiency Rating has nearly doubled post-Smoove, according to ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh, going from a tick above league-average (15.5) to a neighborhood typically reserved for MVP candidates; over the course of the full season, his last-10-games PER of 28.8 would slot in between Kevin Durant (29.1) and Stephen Curry (27.1).
As has been noted elsewhere, Jennings' recent shooting surge represents a pretty significant departure from his past performance. He's knocked down 39.3 percent of his above-the-break 3-point tries over the past 10 games, up from just 30.7 percent through his first 35 appearances this season; Jennings' previous high on such attempts through five prior NBA seasons was 37 percent. But that's nothing compared to the difference in Jennings' success from midrange in the past (never higher than 39.2 percent over a full season) or before Smith's release (just 27.1 percent) and over the past 10 games (a blistering 60 percent). He's also connecting on a much higher share of those in-the-paint-but-not-at-the-rim floaters (42.9 percent) than he did prior to Smith's waiving (just 18.5 percent).
If you're someone who believes in larger bodies of work rather than what small sample sizes might indicate, then, you're probably expecting Jennings' shooting to start tapering off any second now. Given his comments after the game, it sounds like Van Gundy wouldn't be particularly surprised to see that, either, but he's going to ride the wave for as long as he can, according to Vincent Goodwill of the Detroit News.
"Sometimes you're going 'Umm' with some of his shots but I'm not trying to put a leash on him," said Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy, who contorted his face when describing some of Jennings' shots.
"Because he's playing great and you gotta let those guys go. He's playing as well as I've seen him play since he came into the league."
Whether the outside-shooting spike has opened up Jennings' floor game or it's his hiccup-quick first step and ability to get into the paint that's afforded him more room and cleaner looks on the perimeter, he's certainly in a dynamite rhythm, which has stoked his self-belief and helped propel the Pistons to their best run in years. More from Goodwill:
"If I get a couple going early, my confidence gets real high and I feel like I can't miss," said Jennings [...]
Jennings [torched] Lowry until Raptors coach Dwane Casey pulled Lowry off of him, bringing in longer, taller and more engaged defenders.
Terrence Ross, then James Johnson, came on down and went back with the same befuddled look Lowry did. Jennings kept getting to the lane at will, not just scoring but making some beautiful passes to boot.
"Lowry, he'll definitely be an All-Star and has been playing like it since the season began," Jennings said. "My thing was to just attack him."
It was an approach that worked on offense throughout the game, but paid off most handsomely on the final defensive possession, moving Detroit to within two games of the East's eighth and final playoff spot, and keeping one of the league's more remarkable and unexpected runs rolling apace.
“The things they are doing defensively are sustainable," Casey said after the game, according to Eric Koreen of the National Post. They’re shooting the lights out, and I don’t know if that’s sustainable for any team no matter who you are. But defensively they are locked in, tuned in, talking, a totally different team than they when we played them … and that’s something that’s sustainable. You waive a player with the status of Josh Smith, and it jolts you. They’re buying in. It’s clicking. You can’t put your finger on it, but something clicked.”
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