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BOSTON – On Monday morning, hours before the Detroit Pistons upended the Boston Celtics, coach Stan Van Gundy leaned up against a wall in the hallway of a downtown gym and refused to take the bait. This was what the Pistons were supposed to be, right? A relentlessly rebounding, pick-and-roll playing, 3-point shooting contender, the natural successor to the 44-win team of 2015-16 that threw a scare into Cleveland for a couple of games in the first round of the playoffs.
“It’s not that I’m not optimistic,” Van Gundy told Yahoo Sports. “It’s just that you’re only  games in. There’s a lot that can happen. We have to just keep plugging away.”
Small sample size or not, the Pistons — 13-6 after Monday’s 118-108 win over the Celtics — look legit. Detroit’s offense has leaped into the NBA’s top 10 while Andre Drummond’s improved free-throw shooting — and more consistent effort — has given Van Gundy a new weapon to use in the fourth quarter. The inconsistency that plagued Detroit last season has evaporated.
“Last year we put so much pressure on ourselves,” said guard Reggie Jackson. “We were looking to the top of the mountain without worrying about each and every step. This year, having some new faces, some new life in the locker room, we’re taking a more day-by-day approach, rather than worrying about the end goal. Once we get to the end of the season, we will be where we want to be.”
The Detroit resurgence begins with Drummond, who at his best — and Monday’s 26-point, 22-rebound, six-assist blitzkrieg against Boston qualifies as an example of his best — is a holy terror on the floor. Two issues derailed Drummond last season: Effort, which ebbed and flowed, and historically bad free-throw shooting that limited Drummond’s impact in the fourth quarter. The effort, opposing scouts say, has improved considerably, while a retooled free-throw form has raised Drummond’s shooting to 61.8 percent — a 23-point jump from last season.
“He’s playing harder, there is no question,” Van Gundy said. “I still don’t think we’re to every possession — I don’t think we’re at that with anybody. There is always room, but he’s certainly playing harder, he is certainly more focused and he has been at his best in the second halves of games.”
And the free-throw shooting?
“I think it’s sustainable,” Van Gundy said. “I think it could get even higher if he got to the line more. And having our franchise centerpiece on the floor in the fourth quarter — that changes everything.”
Said Jackson: “I always try to remind him that … there can’t be more than 20 guys in the league who can affect the game in [that] many ways. He can change the game in so many facets. I’m proud of the way he has been so consistent.”
And what about Jackson? Two years ago, Jackson just missed out on an All-Star berth. He was a swashbuckling playmaker, high scoring, ruthless off the pick-and-roll, worth every nickel of the five-year, $80 million deal Detroit invested in him. Last year he devolved. He was inefficient with on-/off-court numbers so bad the Pistons openly shopped him before the trade deadline.
This year? Different story. His shooting percentages are up. His on/off numbers, too. The knee problems that plagued Jackson last season have dissipated, and he has assumed a larger, more vocal leadership role. The offseason addition of Avery Bradley has taken defensive pressure off Jackson (“I jumped up and down when I heard we got him,” Jackson said), and Tobias Harris’ blistering 3-point shooting (47.4 percent) has widened the driving lanes.
In 2016, Harris was hailed as a difference-making midseason acquisition. He was Van Gundy’s new Rashard Lewis, a stretchy four man who could space the floor. Until he didn’t. Harris connected on 34.7 percent of his three’s last season, attempting less than four per game. This season the attempts have spiked (career-high 6.1) and his percentage with it.
“He’s stepping into threes without hesitation,” Van Gundy said. “And now you have to close all the way out to him. So he either knocks down a three or he gets more room to beat you off the dribble. I thought he was passing up those shots last year. I thought he was driving the ball into short closeouts. He’s not doing that anymore and that’s made him harder to guard.”
Still, Van Gundy won’t get overly excited about this team yet. Others, though, will. As he exited the Celtics locker room Monday night, coach Brad Stevens looked over at a reporter and said, “They are really good.” Consistency will determine Detroit’s fate, but if March looks like November, Detroit will be a team no one wants to face in the spring.
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