Attention Getters

Cheeks’ connection with young Pistons bears fruit in big win at Indiana

Brandon Jennings
Jennings had 8 points, 2 assists and no turnovers in the 4th quarter against the Pacers
Ron Hoskins (NBAE/Getty)
BOSTON – A lot of NBA teams would have been beaten before the ball got thrown up in Indianapolis. Less than 24 hours after trying to swallow an indigestible overtime loss to Portland, the Pistons were out of the frying pan and into the fire. After almost beating the West’s best, and the NBA’s most prolific offense, they were playing the East’s best Monday night in Indianapolis, and the league’s stingiest defense.

It won’t be all seashells and balloons for the Pistons just because they beat the odds and handed Indiana its first home loss of the season. But make no mistake: Their 12-14 record notwithstanding, the NBA raised its collective eyebrow at the response of the Pistons to Sunday’s loss and the near-miss of an amazing sweep of conference leaders under difficult circumstances.

There are still many leaps of growth necessary for the Pistons to emerge from a muddled field of would-be contenders as the No. 3 team in the East, behind Indiana and Miami. But it’s worth noting that the Pacers and Heat are a combined 22-3 at home this season with two of the three losses inflicted by the Pistons.

But there are many leaps of growth possible for the Pistons, too. And that’s not something many – perhaps none – of all those other teams among a group that includes Atlanta, Washington, Cleveland, Chicago and, perhaps, Brooklyn and New York, once they get healthy, can claim.

It bears repeating that the Pistons have the youngest starting five in the league at a ripe old average age of 23, tied with Cleveland. Josh Smith is the old man. He just turned 28. Brandon Jennings is next. He just turned 24.

Maurice Cheeks, who might just know a thing or two about playing point guard in the NBA, has exercised enormous patience with repeated questions about Jennings, but he can’t completely conceal his amazement that questioners expect Jennings to have mastered the most nuanced position in the game at such an age.

Cheeks readily admits he and his staff are still figuring things out. They probably still will be well into the season. Smith scored 31 and 30 in those marvelous last two games after he and Cheeks talked very recently about ways to make better use of him. Cheeks had a similar chat Monday before the Indiana game with Jennings, this one about the need to rise to the moment in fourth quarters of close games. Jennings did, scoring eight points with two assists and no turnovers in the fourth quarter when Indiana was whizzing fastballs at his head.

“That’s one thing me and Mo actually talked about before the game,” Jennings said, who is becoming immersed in the art of being an NBA point guard, both the big picture art of taking ownership of the team and the smallest minutia the position demands. “I’m going to be real aggressive. The first three quarters, anyone can play. But the last five is what really counts and we showed that tonight.”

Scratch the surface there and you come to something critical about the Cheeks regime to date. He’s been as advertised. The book on Cheeks – one of the things Joe Dumars heard repeatedly in conducting his background last summer during the coach search – says he has a rare knack for drawing the best out of young players by fortifying their mental makeup. He and Jennings, by all appearances and by their own admissions, have a healthy mentor-protégé relationship in the works.

They’ve taken to reviewing the videotape of every game the morning after. Andre Drummond heard about it and wanted in.

“When we watch film, we’re watching to learn the game and it’s not necessarily to that particular game,” Cheeks said. “It’s how to run his basketball team, how to defend the ball. Just so many facets of the game.”

Cheeks was in the opposite conference for all of Jennings’ four seasons in Milwaukee, so he caught only rare glimpses of him. He fully supported the trade when Joe Dumars consulted him before pulling the trigger on the deal that sent Brandon Knight to Milwaukee, but he admits he didn’t know exactly what he was getting.

“When we looked at Brandon from before, we thought he was just a scorer,” Cheeks said. “He’s so much more than a scorer. He’s just such a willing listener. Him and Andre, they’re such willing learners and I think that’s where his growth is going to be.”

To questions from a curious Indiana media contingent before Monday’s game, questions about the teaching aspects of coaching a young team necessitates, Cheeks again circled back to the openness of his young Pistons to lessons imparted.

“They’re pretty good at listening, period,” he said. “A lot of good kids on this team. They pay attention and try to do the things you ask ’em to do. When you lose a game like (Sunday’s), you try to get their attention even more.”

It appears he got it. Guess what? It also appears the Pistons are fast gaining the attention of the NBA.