The Pistons have had the NBA’s highest-scoring second unit this season, but the identity of their bench changes dramatically with Derrick Rose no longer serving as its centerpiece.
Josh Jackson and Saddiq Bey showed evidence in Tuesday’s rousing 122-111 win over Brooklyn that they’re ready to shoulder broader roles, combining for 28 points and playing so well that Dwane Casey stuck with them even after bringing starters Jerami Grant, Mason Plumlee and Delon Wright back in the game for the stretch run.
Jackson, recapturing his early-season momentum that was stunted by an ankle injury, scored 13 points in 29 minutes and played superb defense again. Bey also went through a dip in productivity after a sizzling start to his rookie season, but he, too, has shown signs of righting the ship. He scored 15 points on a perfect shooting night – 6 for 6 overall, 3 of 3 from the 3-point line, all of it coming in the fourth quarter.
“When Derrick was here, he was the main focus with that second unit,” said Wright, after another productive outing as the starting point guard with 22 points and nine assists. “Now guys are going to have to step up and show they can play, too. I think they did a great job. Saddiq hit some big shots. Coach trusted him to play and we were able to find him to hit some big threes.”
Bey, Jackson and rookie Saben Lee were on the floor to start the fourth quarter which opened with Brooklyn having cut a 20-point deficit to eight and a James Harden triple to pull the Nets within five on the opening possession. But when it came time for Casey to wave Grant and Wright back in the game, they were handed an eight-point lead with seven minutes to go.
That made for a long and versatile defensive team able to switch at will without fear they’d leave vulnerable defenders on an island against two of the NBA’s most devastating isolation scorers, Harden and Kyrie Irving. Harden finished with 24 points but was held to 14 shots, only four of them 3-pointers. Irving scored 27 points but needed 28 shots to get it done.
“I thought Saben did a good job defensively on Harden, picking him up full court, on Irving,” Casey said. “Those guys are great, great scorers. You’re not going to stop him. You just want to change the rhythm on them and I thought those guys did that tonight.”
There are going to be plenty of players auditioning for roles on the second unit as it organically determines a new identity in Rose’s wake. Dennis Smith Jr., acquired from the Knicks for Rose, wasn’t yet cleared so didn’t appear against the Nets. Svi Mykhailiuk, mired in a shooting slump, didn’t get off the bench. And Sekou Doumbouya played just six first-half minutes.
But Jackson, Bey and Isaiah Stewart are going to be hard to dislodge. Stewart only played nine minutes – he hit his first career 3-pointer, showing the shooting stroke that Casey and general manager Troy Weaver always believed will be developed into an effective tool – on a night Plumlee was again superb with 14 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists.
“It’s going to change a little bit and we’ll see what Dennis brings to the table with the second unit,” Casey said. “It’s going to change how we approach scoring. Defensively, we should be a good defensive team – a much better defensive team – with that second unit. Loved the way Saben came in and Rodney (McGruder) came in and hounded their guards. It’s going to be a different look, not as much pick-and-roll oriented. Derrick was great at it. It will kind of morph as we go along.”
It’s telling that on a night Grant matched his career high for a second straight game, scoring 32 points, that the swing factors in the Pistons win were the contributions of others. Grant’s become a given. His 32 points came with deadly efficiency. He hit 11 of 19 shots overall, 4 of 8 from the 3-point line. He hit 6 of 7 free throws, grabbed five rebounds, dished out four assists and blocked a shot – the type of impact the Pistons now take for Grant-ed, if you will.
“Jerami is playing like an All-Star – which he is,” Wright said. “We need him and he’s playing really well for us. He’s being that go-to guy.”
“Jerami’s been impressive all season,” Plumlee said. “He had 15 in the first quarter and the thing about it, it was all within the offense. He’s making tough shots. He’s really a tough cover for any team and doing it with the attention of the defensive game plan. It’s not a surprise any more. Teams know he’s getting his numbers and he’s still coming in and doing it.”
The win was a just reward for the Pistons, who came back from a double-digits deficit against the Lakers to end a grinding four-game road trip but lost in double overtime their last time out.
“We’re capable of beating anybody in this league if we come out and play together and play with some intensity,” Wright said. “Guys can’t take us lightly. We’ve been in all these games, even though we haven’t come away with a lot of wins. We’re trying to show we can play and compete with anybody.”