The core strength the Pistons felt they took into the season was depth. It would be their depth that would give them a chance to win games that teams so reliant on youth – 12 players 24 or younger – find so very challenging to win. For the first 50-some games, it was impossible to tell, injuries to key players undermining their depth thoroughly.
Now as healthy as they’ve been all season – among rotation pieces, only Frank Jackson was missing for Thursday’s game, the first coming out of the All-Star break – they get the third final of the season to find out if they were right . But the early indications are promising, indeed.
“It’s a factor. You’ve got to scout for a lot of different players,” Hamidou Diallo said after coming off the bench to lead the Pistons with 21 tidy points in 21 high-impact minutes. “A lot of different people could be on the floor. It’s all about who has rhythm and who has it going.”
With Jerami Grant and Saddiq Bey not scoring a basket for the game’s first 19 minutes, the Pistons clung close enough to put themselves in position to win. And win they did, beating Cleveland 106-103, the second time in a month they’ve handed the Cavaliers a loss.
“That’s a very good team,” Dwane Casey said. “They’ve done a heck of a job of putting that team together. (That’s) our blueprint. To beat them a couple of times the way we have is a feather in our cap because they’re one of the top teams in our conference. They’re our goal.”
Grant recovered from early foul trouble to score 16 points, but Bey managed just three on 1 of 7 3-point shooting. He wasn’t on the floor for the final five minutes with the game on the line. That wouldn’t have happened a few weeks ago. But Casey has options now.
The Pistons got 53 points off their bench, led by Diallo, newly acquired Marvin Bagley III with 16 and Rodney McGruder with 12. Diallo (three) and McGruder (four) were a perfect 7 of 7 from the 3-point arc on a night the Pistons shot just 32 percent. Killian Hayes and Kelly Olynyk were big parts of the bench’s effectiveness despite scoring only two points apiece, Olynyk adding four rebounds and four assists and Hayes five rebounds, five assists and two steals as part of another superb defensive outing.
“Hami and Rodney, that second unit changed the game,” Casey said. “Sped up the game”. Killian was also in that group. They did a really good job of setting the tempo.”
Cleveland was shorthanded on the perimeter, missing All-Star guard Darius Garland and newly acquired swingman Caris LeVert, but the Cavs got Lauri Markkanen back after missing 11 games to give them a frontcourt of three 7-footers with Markkanen joining Rookie of the Year front -runner Evan Mobley and All-Star Jarrett Allen.
The Pistons, though, outrebounded Cleveland 49-43 and doubled them up in second-chance points, 10-5. All 10 Pistons to play were credited with at least three rebounds and all five bench players grabbed between four and six. And they turned it over just 11 times, enabling them to win a game despite 41 percent shooting.
“We’re not a great 3-point shooting team,” Casey said. “We’ve got to do other things to affect winning. Tonight we couldn’t buy a bucket, so you have to do other things, whether it’s Isaiah Stewart had what we call five highway screens” – screens so devastatingly effective there’s a clear path to the basket for the ballhandler. “You don’t see it on the stat sheet, but it affects winning.”
Stewart’s sheer hustle early in the third quarter pushed the Pistons into the lead, the 20-year-old racking up nine points and seven rebounds in eight minutes. Bagley, playing his third game since being acquired at the trade deadline for Trey Lyles and Josh Jackson from Sacramento, gives the Pistons a different frontcourt dimension, cashing in a couple of lob passes including a spectacular one from Cade Cunningham.
“That was a great pass. He threw it a little high – I had to go get it,” Bagley grinned. “I wanted to get up there and finish it for him. That goes to show how unselfish this team is.”
Cunningham had his fingerprints on pretty much everything and his stat line mirrored that of his team. He didn’t shoot it well – 4 of 16, 0 of 4 from three – but found ways to affect winning with six rebounds, six assists and a 9 of 10 night at the foul line, including four big ones in the final minute that proved to be the game’s final four points. The Pistons survived two missed Cleveland triple attempts to avoid overtime and start the “second half” of the season on the right foot.
“I think we did a good job of not letting those shots we missed get to us,” Bagley said. “We stayed in there and fought the whole game and we came out with the win. That’s the most important thing.”