Even in Defeat, the Detroit Pistons Are Learning How to Be a Playoff Team

The Pistons may be down 0-2 in their series against the Cleveland Cavaliers, but they are showing a resilient attitude that will serve them well in the future.

by John Wilmes
Apr 22 2016, 5:00pm

Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

This article is part of VICE Sports' 2016 NBA Playoffs Coverage.

With just over three minutes left in Detroit's first playoff game in seven years, the Pistons trailed the top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers and Lebron James by five points. Then Detroit point guard Reggie Jackson lost his shit. After creating space for an open jumper against Iman Shumpert, Jackson's shot precipitously rimmed out. Reggie didn't like this, so naturally he pumped his fist in anger and stomped swiftly toward the referee, to herkily jerkily proclaim that he was fouled on the shot. Watching the replay, it is very difficult to know why Jackson is mad. He made a good move, and as a result was all alone and untouched when he shot.

This was not the behavior of a man who has been there before, but then the Pistons haven't been here. Jackson, 26, is the oldest member of Detroit's regular playoff rotation. He's previously played in the playoffs with the Oklahoma City Thunder, but only as a role player behind superstar Russell Westbrook. Like every other Piston getting heavy burn in this first-round series, Jackson is finding his way under much brighter lights than he's accustomed to. As many nascent contenders before them have done, the Pistons are trying their best not to drown in their own sweat beneath that heat.

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Coach Stan Van Gundy, an NBA lifer who has been within three wins of a title, is doing his goofy best to embolden these youngsters, who trail the Cavs 2-0 after a 17-point loss Wednesday night—a considerable step backwards after a fiercely fought opening bout. Van Gundy's effortless, endlessly entertaining charm has garnered the lion's share of his team's expanding media attention; his nonchalant claim that LeBron James won't be called for offensive fouls, mid-game, earned him a $25,000 fine:

Stan has also said, in recent days, that it's "a travesty," that his rotund and lustily mustachioed self wasn't included on Sports Illustrated's new "50 Most Fashionable Athletes" list. He is the sly centerpiece of his team's unfinished bildungsroman, and seems happy to take the necessary heat and provide some Falstaffian comic relief as the Pistons begin their rough transition into playoff contenders.

Van Gundy's jests reveal a poise that he has and his young players mostly don't. But for all their sloppiness, the Pistons are demonstrating, and learning, the sort of pride, presence, and resilience that they'll need in what looks likely to be a bright future. While it may be embarrassing to watch Jackson have a temper tantrum in crunch time and earn a technical foul that swung a playoff game, the long view suggests that a point guard engaged and emotional enough to get mad about things is a good point guard to have. Jackson's intensity is a valuable trait, and it's something he usually carries gracefully. He will need to do that with many more people watching, and against defenses game-planning for him. But there is still time for him to figure that out.

Stan Van Gundy holds back his star point guard Reggie Jackson after he got a technical in Game 2. Photo by Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

A perspective on tomorrow also tells us that even the hubris of rookie Stanley Johnson, a hyper-talented 19-year-old rookie who fell out of the rotation late in the year, is something of an asset. After fearlessly guarding LeBron in Game 2 and frankly getting roasted, Johnson produced postgame quotes matched only by the rhetoric of DJ Khaled in the school of self-belief. "I'm definitely in his head, that's for sure," Johnson said of the four-time MVP, who shot 12-for-18 on the night and generally controlled the game.

If Johnson, like Lance Stephenson and Joakim Noah and countless other 'Bron antagonists before him, is indeed in the King's head, he'd probably rather not be. When James gets mad, he gets aggressive, and an aggressive and motivated James is so overwhelmingly good that spectators wonder if he even needs teammates. This is not news, or new, and we have seen how this generally ends for teams that bait LeBron in this way.

That Johnson and the Pistons aren't afraid to fly headlong into the sun is what matters here, though. They're the youngest team in the playoffs (by far) and have talent up and down the roster. They can figure out the rest later—particularly the back end of their roster, which is full of uninspiring substitutes like Steve Blake, a longtime backup who was a frequent trap victim and a painful -20 on Wednesday night. The contest got out of hand toward the end of the third quarter when Jackson rested and he took the helm. Next year, when Blake is an assistant coach somewhere, this won't be a problem.

Van Gundy is also the team's president, and he's taken a youth-first initiative with almost every transaction since taking over two years ago. His is a roster full of appreciating values, and as 22-year-old All-Star center Andre Drummond continues to grow—he's already the league's best rebounder, but is demonstrably still in his figuring-it-all-out phase—and his teammates do, too, Detroit will inch up the East's hierarchy. For now, it's fun enough to watch the team flail with pride under pressure. Even running uphill against the Eastern Conference's best team, there's something inspiring about their refusal to respect their seasoned superiors. The Pistons have chutzpah, talent, and one of the boldest coaches in basketball. In time, they will also have much more success. For now, it's a good start.