Amid the losses, a burning ember of competitive fire: ‘We’ve got to play with that Detroit heart’

Reggie Bullock’s dive to the floor for a loose ball symbolized the winning habits Dwane Casey is trying to instill in the Pistons.
Chris Schwegler/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

SACRAMENTO – Down 20, minus Blake Griffin, still missing the heart and head of their bench in Ish Smith and Zaza Pachulia, on a back to back, enduring yet another dispiriting 3-point experience, Dwane Casey gleaned a ray of light.

It was there, in front of him, sprawled on the court at Golden 1 Center – three Pistons, diving on the floor for a loose ball 40 feet from the basket.

“I found out our guys competed,” Casey said after a game that never really seemed in doubt after the first quarter, Thursday’s 112-102 loss to Sacramento. “They were diving on the floor, going for loose balls. We’ve got to have that. I thought we had a competitive edge throughout the game.”

The old college try, by itself, won’t win you a lot of games in the NBA. The Pistons, sooner or later, are going to have to climb out of 29th in 3-point shooting to turn around their season. They’re either going to need to dramatically improve their No. 23 offensive rating or go from an average (No. 14) defense to an elite defense.

But Casey’s drumbeat since the first day of training camp has been about building good habits and the underpinning to that starts above all else with passion and an intolerance for failure. He saw that Thursday night at a time it would have been almost understandable to cash it in and get out of town.

Reggie Bullock, the first of the three Pistons to hit the floor– Langston Galloway and Andre Drummond were the others – has vaulted from journeyman trying to make his way to a bona fide NBA starter and invaluable member of Casey’s starting five for his 3-point shooting, movement and defense. With that rise in status, he’s embraced the mantle of leadership – another encouraging sign.

“I’m trying to lead and show if I can get on the floor, anybody off the bench should be able to get on the floor,” he said. “I’m trying to do the little things to get our swag back, our momentum back. I’m a big factor shooting the ball, so I’ve got to show I can do it on the defensive end and show it on hustle plays, do all these other things that Coach needs players on this team to do.”

“We’ve just got to keep fighting,” Galloway said. “We’re going through a tough stretch right now, but this is a long season. Take it one game at a time, go out there and compete, find a way to get out of this and get back on track.”

The abiding truth of the NBA is that while coaches are always distrustful of success – wary that the tiniest oversight will trigger a landslide of misfortune – they’re just as sure that a breakthrough is around every corner. Transmitting that positivity to players is a bond shared by all successful coaches, the trait that Casey became renowned for in transforming Toronto from also-ran to the top of the Eastern Conference.

As he pored over videotapes of last season’s Pistons games to study the strengths and tendencies of the players he inherited, he noticed a consistent and troublesome theme. Whenever adversity struck, the Pistons would succumb to it. “Drop their head, drop their shoulders,” he said. That’s why he was as upbeat as a coach who’d lost for the fourth straight time could be. That’s what seeing three players dive on the floor for a loose ball, down 20, meant to him.

He threw Khyri Thomas into the game and let him play the last 17 minutes straight, finding further cause for encouragement from the rookie.

“I really loved the way Khyri came out and competed. All the young guys,” he said. “We’ve got to continue to build those habits. You’re going to get tired of me saying this, but they’re winning habits. The competitive-edge habit, I thought, was really good for us tonight.”

It’s something, at least, to carry over to their next game – Saturday against the Clippers, which marks the midway point of the season – and hope that’s the one that lights the fuse and ignites the turnaround.

“I just believe. Faith,” Bullock said. “We will get out of it. We’ve just got to remember these games, the games like this one, down 20, players jumping on the floor. We’re still scrappy. We’ve got to play with that Detroit heart and do it for 48 minutes. That grit, whether we win or lose, we’ll be able to leave the game knowing we played our hardest.”