“Welcome back, young fella,” Villanueva boomed as he left the locker room. “Welcome back.”
“Thank you, sir,” Knight said before continuing his response to the media.
I’ll take a cue from Knight and show my appreciation, too.
After missing the last three games – his first-ever DNPs – Knight scored a career-high 32 points on 11-of-18 shooting, including 5-of-6 on 3-pointers, to lead the Pistons to a 96-95 win over the Wizards on Wednesday.
Knight’s performance was hardly transcendent, but this season, when every Pistons game is quickly forgotten, it might come as close as we get. With Knight sidelined, the Pistons lost by 32, 18 and 11. Facing his first return after a missed game, Knight quickly changed the Pistons’ direction with 12 points, two assists and no turnovers in the first quarter.
“Our fight just wasn’t really there,” Knight said of the three games he missed. “So, me, as one of the leaders, just wanted to come back and make sure I provided us with some fight.”
The Pistons responded like Knight hoped.
Jose Calderon’s defense tightened on John Wall, who finished with more turnovers (seven) than points (six). Kim English raced the floor to get 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions. Jason Maxiell played stifling defense, finishing with seven defensive rebounds, four blocks, a steal and a well-earned, game-best +21 plus-minus rating in 26 minutes.
All fed off Knight’s fight.
There’s room to pick apart Knight’s game – especially his four turnovers, including two on the first two possessions of the second half – but I’m just going to note those miscues and move on.
Knight played brilliantly offensively. He ran the pick-and-roll to create space, ran hard around off-ball screens and pushed up court during fastbreaks to get his points. Most of his arsenal was on display, and it was a joy to watch.
Defensively, Knight struggled,which he admitted after the game, citing his knee injury.
“I wanted to play last game,” Knight said. “So, it’s not good. There’s going to be some discomfort, just a matter of how much and how much you can play through. I always play through some discomfort, different things that you guys don’t always know about.”
I asked Knight about preparing after his first missed games, and he dismissed any significance, saying he prepared for every game as if he were playing. That’s a veteran answer from a 21-year-old.
It can be easy to forget how many situations Knight has yet to experience, but tonight, he got a new one, and that could pay off later. I can imagine Knight, relying on his experience tonight, getting injured in the playoffs a couple years from now and coming back without missing a beat.
Nearly every night, there are lessons like that for Knight to absorb.
The same can be said for Greg Monroe, the 22-year-old who had 26 points, 11 rebounds and four steals Wednesday. He stopped hesitating on his mid-range jumper, and not only did he make shots from that area, it opened the rest of his offense.
Monroe’s and Knight’s 58 combined points were the most they’ve ever scored together in a game. Of course, they had plenty of help from Calderon, who had 18 assists, including six to each Monroe and Knight. Knight was asked whether the Pistons were unstoppable when he and Monroe played so well.
“Not necessarily unstoppable, because we still almost lost,” Knight said. “So, it’s not about offense. It’s about making sure, no matter what’s going on offense, it’s about making sure we’re getting stops on the defensive end.”
Another veteran answer and also a very correct one. Trevor Ariza ended the game on a personal 8-0 run before missing a 3-pointer as time expired.
With Monroe and Knight playing well simultaneously, we glimpsed where this team was hopefully headed after last season. Those two looked great, but a one-point win over the Wizards hardly constitutes the end goal. As the Wizards shot 25-of-40 in the paint (63 percent), it became clear how fortunate the Pistons were to draft Andre Drummond, a potential rim-protecting difference maker.
Monroe and Knight are nice pieces to rebuild around, but they’re not nearly enough.
They were enough to win Wednesday, though, and that counts for something. There has been a lot of talk about whether the Pistons should start tanking, and Lawrence Frank basically admitted before the game he’d begin more lineup experimentation once the Pistons are officially eliminated from the playoff race. As a fan, that’s satisfying. But for the current players, these days must be torture. It’s important – if for no other reason than to keep morale high enough to keep working hard – they experience some success, some good feelings.
With postgame of Georgetown’s just-concluded win over Connecticut playing on the locker-room television, Monroe stopped teasing Villanueva and Drummond long enough to talk about Knight.
“He’s a big part of what we do,” Monroe said. “So ,whenever he’s on the floor, guys do feel better.”