The Detroit Pistons sent shockwaves across the NBA landscape last week, releasing 11-year pro Josh Smith on December 22 after signing him to a four-year, $54 million contract in July of 2013. Smith had started the first 28 games of the season for Stan Van Gundy’s club prior to release. The move has since thrust Brandon Jennings, 25, into more of a leadership role for the Pistons than ever before. Jennings is now in his sixth NBA season, averaging over 16 points and 6 assists per game for his career. Last night, Jennings and the Pistons faced LeBron James, Kevin Love and the Cleveland Cavaliers. BJ’s now flanked by four starting teammates (Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Singler) who combine for an average age of 23.
Jennings used a game-high 25 points to spark a 23-point Pistons (7-26) victory over James and the Cavaliers (18-12), while also dishing out six assists and collecting five rebounds. He also proved deadly from three-point range, devastating David Blatt’s team from perimeter with five threes on 10-of-18 shooting overall. In two games since Smith’s departure (he’s now in Houston), Detroit has now beaten the Pacers and Cavs in back-to-back matchups by a total of 33 points. Jennings has led his young Pistons squad by averaging 19.5 points, 8 assists and 5 rebounds during these last two victories.
“I think Friday night was our best game of the year, and tonight was better,” Van Gundy told the media in Cleveland on Sunday following the Pistons’ 103-80 win over the Cavaliers. “So, we’ve played our two best games of the year back-to-back. But we’ll see. It’s just two games. We’ve got a long way to go, but today was a step forward.”
Jennings’ play, combined with a renewed effort from his teammates, has even made it reasonable to suggest that an Eastern Conference Playoff spot is not quite out of the realm of possibilities just yet. The Pistons, sitting at 7-23 heading into matchups with the Orlando Magic, New York Knicks and Sacramento Kings (all winnable games), incredibly are only a half-dozen back of the Brooklyn Nets for the No. 8 spot.
We caught up with Jennings before he went out and hung 25 on the Cavaliers on Sunday. Check it out:
SLAM: How do you put what’s happened so far this season behind you, and focus on moving forward?
Brandon Jennings: We definitely just have to take it one game at a time right now. With the way the East is shaking up, we still have a chance to make the Playoffs. So that’s our main goal. But we just want to take it one game at a time, and just play hard every night.
SLAM: Is that your message to your teammates right now—that the East is so wide open, the postseason is still a possibility if you can continue to improve?
Jennings: Yeah, I mean especially in the East. If you win six or seven in a row, you could be looking at seventh place or the eighth place right now. So that’s where our mindset is. But like I said, we’re just taking it one game at a time. We’re still in the hunt. We’re not tanking or anything like that. We’re going to compete to the end.
SLAM: Is this a moment in your career you feel better prepared to handle after everything you’ve seen and done in the League? Are you even more of a leader now with Josh Smith leaving?
Jennings: Things happen in this League. My rookie year, I made the Playoffs. So it was a little easier. I was on a team with veterans like Kurt Thomas, Jerry Stackhouse, Andrew Bogut—guys who’d already been in the League. So, this is definitely a challenge, the fact that I’m kind of like the leader now. And now I have to lead my team, every day. Come in with a positive attitude, not just trying to take over games by scoring, but just making sure that everyone is happy on the team and everyone’s good.
SLAM: You’re starting one of the youngest lineups in the League against LeBron James, Kevin Love and the Cavaliers. How do you plan to approach games vs. teams like the Cavs?
Jennings: We’re definitely going to have to play harder. We are going to have to play harder than them, and we’re going to have to take on the challenge. When they make runs, we can’t get down or give up. We just have to keep fighting and keep pushing.
Brendan Bowers is an NBA writer who covers the Cavaliers and the NBA in Cleveland for SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @BowersCLE. Image via Getty.