AUBURN HILLS – Their start to the season has been as smooth as anyone could have expected, but now bigger challenges await the 10-3 Detroit Pistons.
They play nine of their next 11 games on the road, including three this week.
Having Stanley Johnson and Jon Leuer back from injuries would help, especially Wednesday against Giannis Antetokounmpo, the NBA’s leading scorer, and the Milwaukee Bucks (8 p.m., Fox Sports Detroit).
“He’s probably playing the best basketball out of anybody in the NBA; everybody is saying he’s a leading candidate for MVP,” Pistons guard Ish Smith said. “We know how hard it is to guard him, we need all the bodies we can get. Whenever you get Stanley Johnson and Jon back, those are two starters on our team – Jon could be starting – that’s huge.”
Coach Stan Van Gundy said Johnson (back) and Leuer (sprained ankle) practiced full-out Tuesday but are questionable for Wednesday.
“How they feel now is not nearly as important as how they’re going to feel tomorrow, coming off their first contact, and they both look very rusty, too,” Van Gundy said.
Johnson, at small forward, had the primary defensive responsibility against the 6-foot-11 Antetokounmpo during the Pistons’ 105-96 victory on Nov. 3 at Little Caesars Arena. Antetokounmpo scored 29 points, slightly below his season average of 31.3.
Johnson has missed three games, during which Reggie Bullock has started.
“I really haven’t done anything in 10 days,” Johnson said. “I feel like it’s more of getting your wind back and seeing where I’m at. Felt good, see what happens tomorrow, whether I’m able to play or not. I feel like I will play tomorrow, if nothing happens.”
Said Van Gundy: “We have missed (Johnson’s) defense in particular, and his rebounding a little bit. He was also playing really well offensively, under control.”
Leuer, the 6-11 backup power forward, has been out five games.
“Our depth is so huge in our success so far,” Smith said. “One guy goes down, the next guy steps up.”
The Pistons are coming of a sweep of their five-game homestand.
“I think our energy and our ball movement have been the (keys),” Van Gundy said. “And when we have not been good with those things we’ve struggled offensively, so getting the ball moving, getting it side to side, that stuff is important.”
The Pistons are averaging 106.5 points per game, up from 101.3 last season. Their 3-point shooting has been much better (38 percent compared to 33 percent), thanks primarily to Tobias Harris (42-of-83, 50.6 percent).
“Two things have been huge thus far, our offense and our coaches really harping on us to get ball movement, player movement, cuts, playing with more pace,” Smith said. “And then our shooters; it makes everybody’s life easier when you got shooters like that.”
Van Gundy has been telling players all season to keep a level head.
“I think we’re playing hard and we’re playing unselfishly and we’re not getting carried away with ourselves,” Van Gundy said. “It’s 13 games into the season, we’re off to a good start, we know we’re in a challenging stretch right now, we’re going to have to be better.”
He saw signs of that in practice, when players realized what they need to improve on.
“There’s a difference between feeling good about yourself and feeling yourself,” Van Gundy said.