Andre Drummond ate the Celtics alive, and the Pistons still look for real

Andre Drummond imposed his will on the East-leading Celtics. (AP)

There was always a player there, inside the colossal frame of Andre Drummond. You don’t lead the league in rebounding two years running or pile up more than 100 blocks and 100 steals in three out of the last four seasons by dint of luck or a sparkling personality. You need more than brute force and overwhelming physical gifts for that.

It was just that, well, too often there seemed to be something getting in the way of that game and those instincts. Fatigue, maybe, from carrying around all that bulk for 30 or so minutes a night. Or short-circuited chemistry with Reggie Jackson, who looked like the pick-and-roll table-setter of his dreams two years ago before injuries and infighting turned things nightmarish.

Or the knowledge that dominant centers dominate the paint, which means you have to kill with your back to the basket (even if it feels like giving an interview in your third language on a satellite delay) and that you have to block everything (except, wait, crap, now I’m all the way over on the lane line and my man is getting a put-back for a layup). Or that voice in his head that told him he was going to keep missing those free throws, a voice that only got louder late in games until Stan Van Gundy decided to quiet it by giving it a seat next to him on the Detroit Pistons’ bench.

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It’s all quieter, now, and as a result, Drummond’s been roaring through the first quarter of the 2017-18 campaign — screening and rolling, soaring and smashing, vacuuming the glass and hustling on defense. He kept his bid to return to All-Star consideration humming along on Monday, beating the team with the NBA’s best record in their own gym to offer yet another bit of evidence in support of the wild theory that the Pistons are, in fact, good:

Drummond pulverized Al Horford, Aron Baynes, Daniel Theis and the rest of the Boston Celtics, scoring 26 points on 10-for-12 shooting to go with 22 rebounds (a season high), six assists (one off a season high) and four steals (one off a season high) to help lead the Pistons to an impressive 118-108 win over the East’s top seed.

The continually impressive Tobias Harris poured in a game-high 31 points on 11-for-16 shooting with eight rebounds. Resurgent point guard Jackson kicked in 20 points on 7-for-10 shooting with seven assists and only one turnover. Ex-Celtics stopper Avery Bradley struggled with his accuracy in his return to Boston, needing 14 shots to score 13 points, but he helped cool down red-hot Celtics star Kyrie Irving, harassing the high-scoring point guard into 18 points on 6-for-16 shooting and six turnovers to mitigate his nine assists.

With Harris and Jackson scorching and Drummond rampaging, the Pistons torched the NBA’s No. 1 defense, shooting 51.8 percent from the field as a team. They were able to withstand the Celtics’ hot shooting, though — 51.9 percent from the C’s, including a 16-for-33 mark from deep, led by (of all people!) reserve guard Marcus Smart, who scored a game-high 23 and shot 6-for-9 from beyond the arc — by taking care of the ball (only eight Pistons turnovers) and both forcing and capitalizing on Boston’s own miscues (17 Celtics turnovers, leading to 25 Detroit points).

The Pistons’ strong start to the season has been built on balance, composure, not beating themselves and working their collective tails off to create good looks on one end and snuff ’em out on the other. Now, Detroit’s got road wins over the best teams in each conference to show for it.

“They’re really happy; we know we beat a really, really good team,” Van Gundy said outside the winning locker room, according to Rod Beard of the Detroit News. “We beat a team on their home court who was 18-3. It was just a really good win.”

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The game’s dominant force, though, was Drummond, who played his high school and college ball in Connecticut, and who sure seems to like facing the guys from New England:



As impressive as those numbers are — and they were dominant enough to put Drummond in some extremely good company …



… perhaps the most important one in Dre’s stat sheet was 39:50. That’s how much playing time he logged against the C’s. Last season, Drummond eclipsed the 36-minute mark just eight times in 81 games. He matched that total on Monday night, in only the Pistons’ 19th game.

Drummond’s been able to stay on the floor more often in part to improved conditioning (he reportedly trimmed off 30 pounds over the summer, along with having surgery to repair a sinus issue that impeded his breathing) and in part to a long-awaited improvement in his free-throw shooting. The increased effectiveness at the free-throw line has emboldened him to attack late in games, and bolstered Van Gundy’s faith that, should opponents resume hacking, his big man will now make them pay for it. Drummond went 6-for-8 from the stripe on Monday, including 5-for-6 in the fourth quarter to help the Pistons surge ahead and hold off the East-leading Celtics’ attempts at a late-game charge.

He’s now shooting 61.8 percent from the line on nearly five attempts per game this season, a staggering 20 percentage points above his previous career-best mark — more than good enough to make opponents think twice about the math on intentionally sending him to the line, and to give Van Gundy the confidence to ride Drummond longer and in higher-leverage situations. Like, for example, the final few minutes on Monday, where Drummond converted a pair of and-one finishes that helped build Detroit’s lead late, and comfortably knocked down two more freebies with 30.5 seconds left to make it a three-possession game and all but end Boston’s hopes of coming back.

The confidence boost seems to have paid dividends in other parts of Drummond’s game, too. He’s no longer trying to square-peg himself into being a back-to-the-basket scorer; after averaging five post-up possessions finished per game two seasons ago, and 4.1 per night last year, he’s down to just 1.7 a game this year, fewer than the likes of Khris Middleton and Michael Beasley. Instead, as noted last week by Scott Rafferty at The Step Back, Drummond’s spending much more time working at foul-line extended — 2.5 elbow touches per game last season, all the way up to 6.7 per game this year, fifth-most in the NBA.

Drummond’s serving as a hub for Pistons ball-handlers (Jackson, Bradley, Harris, Ish Smith) on dribble handoff actions that get defenders engaged out top and can serve as sort of roving pick-and-rolls that change sides of the floor and shift the defense. Those actions allow Drummond to dive off the pitch and attack the rim for bread-and-butter lob dunks or put-backs off offensive rebounds. Unleashed and allowed to make plays, Drummond’s turning the ball over more (5.1 cough-ups per 100 possessions, up from 3.1-per-100 last year) but he’s also dropping dimes way more (5.1 assists-per-100, more than double his previous career-best rate).

He just looks more comfortable in his own skin — a far cry from the often-awkward way he and the rest of the Pistons moved on the court during a jagged and janky 2016-17 season, a much closer facsimile to the player Detroit hoped it’d get when it inked Drummond to a five-year, $130 million maximum contract in 2016, and a fresh reminder of why it’s not necessarily smart to close the book on a 24-year-old with superhuman size, strength and agility.

“Andre was unbelievable tonight,” Smith, the Pistons’ backup point guard, said after the game, according to Jimmy Golden of The Associated Press. “He was special.”

And if he can be, then maybe the Pistons — now 13-6, the fourth-best record in the NBA, and an impressive 6-4 on the road — can be, too.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!