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Baptism by fire: Sekou’s first start sees him matched up against MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard

LOS ANGELES – Dwane Casey was just looking for a matchup against Kawhi Leonard that gave the Pistons a fighting chance.

That’s why Sekou Doumbouya drew his first NBA start in the first game of 2020. There was no symbolism there. Even with Blake Griffin out again with more troublesome knee soreness and even with owner Tom Gores cracking the door to the possibility of a franchise reset, Casey wasn’t making a statement about the future taking precedence over the present.

He just wanted someone who wouldn’t be physically overwhelmed by the 2019 Finals MVP and free-agent coup of the summer.

“Christian Wood can’t guard Kawhi Leonard,” Casey said after Doumbouya – the player the Pistons picked 15th in last June’s draft and who just 10 days ago turned 10 – finished with 10 points and 11 rebounds in 27 minutes of his starting debut. “We were looking for a matchup with Kawhi Leonard. That was the bottom line.”

Along the way, Doumbouya both showed why the Pistons would have preferred he spend most of his rookie season playing for the Grand Rapids Drive and why they were so thrilled to call his name when their turn with the 15th pick came last June. There were youthful mistakes – three quick fouls in the second quarter – but also the flash plays, including a stop of Leonard at the rim and an athletic rebound in traffic to finish it off, or an offensive rebound and dunk.

Doumbouya found out at the morning shootaround on UCLA’s campus that he’d be starting and matched up against one of the MVP front-runners.

“When I heard the first time this morning, I was … I was nervous,” Doumbouya admitted. “Because he’s one of the best players in the league right now and I was nervous.”

His teammates gave him their best advice: Do what got you here.

“Just play, be free, play the game and that’s it,” Doumbouya said he heard over and again from veterans.

“With a young player like that, the main objective is just to go out and play, have fun. That’s what I kept telling him,” Langston Galloway said. “I think that’s what he did. He wasn’t like, ‘I’m playing against Kawhi.’ It was, ‘I’m just playing against another player. Let me go out there and compete and show what I can do’ and that’s what he did tonight. Double-double – that’s big for his confidence and for him going forward.”

Doumbouya grinned when asked how he felt he fared.

“I’m just happy – just happy to play and show what I can do a little bit,” he said. “That’s it.”

“I was impressed with the way he gave us physicality,” Casey said. “You’re guarding one of the best players on the planet in Kawhi Leoanrd, knowing he wasn’t going to get any mercy from the officials. He was aggressive. He didn’t know any better not to be. I was really happy he was one of our leading rebounders. That was as important as anything else.”

It wasn’t just Griffin who sat out. Markieff Morris, who would have started in his place, missed his third straight game with a foot sprain. Luke Kennard and Reggie Jackson remain out.

Once again, it was the third quarter that undid the Pistons. They led much of the first half and trailed by just six at halftime, then saw the Clippers outscore them 37-16 in the third quarter. In the first three games of the road trip, the Pistons have trailed by four and six points and led by one at halftime and been outscored by a cumulative score of 108-59 in three third quarters.

“I can’t pinpoint it,” said Galloway, one of five Pistons off the bench and nine overall to finish in double figures with 11 points. “Some turnovers here and there and they’re capitalizing on it, but I don’t really know. We just can’t figure it out right now.”

Casey was at least heartened by the response of the group that finished, outscoring the Clippers 33-20 in the fourth quarter. Doumbouya had eight points and four boards in his eight-plus minutes and he had company from a few others who the Pistons hope can be part of a young core. Svi Mykhailiuk, Christian Wood and Bruce Brown were also out there with him.

“I was excited about the way we finished the game with the young guys,” Casey said. “The way they competed, the way they laid it on the line. That’s the way we have to play.”