Bulls flash just enough closing punch to sneak past Pistons in opening slugfest

Jerami Grant led the Pistons with 24 points on a night the defenses dominated as Chicago win to open the 2021-22 NBA season

FAST BREAKDOWN

Three quick observations from Wednesday night’s 94-88 loss to the Chicago Bulls at Little Caesars Arena

DOWN TO THE WIRE – Jerami Grant and Zach LaVine were teammates on the gold medal United States Olympic basketball team this summer and when their coaches summoned them to return to the game with 6:31 left in the fourth quarter, the Pistons held an 82-81 lead with Chicago inbounding the ball. Lonzo Ball hit a 3-pointer to put Chicago ahead. The Pistons got the better of Chicago’s bench, but the Bulls have four starters making more than $20 million apiece and the fifth starter, Patrick Williams, was the No. 4 pick in the 2020 draft. When Chicago coach Billy Donovan began sprinkling those starters back in his lineup early in the fourth quarter, the Pistons didn’t have enough of a cushion to give Dwane Casey any comfort level. Chicago has three players who’ve been their teams’ closer in LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nic Vucevic and in a game where points came grudgingly the Bulls had just a little more firepower than a young Pistons team in the early stages of their restoration. LaVine scored 15 of his 34 points in the third quarter after the Bulls were held to 40 first-half points and made six free throws in the game’s final 40 seconds to push Chicago’s lead to eight points after the Bulls never led by more than four points previously. The Pistons shot just 21.4 percent from the 3-point line and 40 percent overall; the Bulls finished at 30.4 from three and 43.5 overall. It won’t take long for the Pistons to get their chance at retribution. They next play at Chicago on Saturday night.

LINEUP JUGGLING – With Cade Cunningham missing the opener, Dwane Casey elected to elevate Frank Jackson to the starting lineup as he’d done in preseason games, leaving intact the second unit of Kelly Olynyk, Trey Lyles, Hamidou Diallo, Josh Jackson and Cory Joseph. Casey brought Joseph, Olynyk and Diallo off the bench eight minutes into the game, leaving Jerami Grant and Saddiq Bey still on the floor. Then Grant came out a minute later for Lyles and Bey another minute after that for Josh Jackson. Casey threw a little wrinkle into things in the second quarter when he brought Grant back while Lyles and Olynyk were still in the game, giving Grant some time at small forward before Bey came on shortly afterward for Lyles. When Cunningham returns, presumably sliding into the starting lineup at Frank Jackson’s spot, Casey will have a decision to make with regard to the wing positions on the second unit. Casey mixed up the units for his closing lineup, going with Joseph at point guard for all of the fourth quarter, shuttling Olynyk and Stewart in and out and splitting the other backcourt spot between Josh Jackson and Frank Jackson.

DEFENSE ON POINT – It’s dangerous to draw any meaningful conclusions from a one-game sample, but the preseason emphasis on establishing a defense-first identity at least got off on solid footing in the opener. The Pistons allowed almost nothing in the way of straight-line drives to the basket, their rotations were cohesive and there appeared very few errors in communication. One example of the alertness the Pistons exhibited. When Zach LaVine and Nic Vucevic successfully drew a switch from Kelly Olynyk and Josh Jackson in the second quarter, Olynyk blunted LaVine’s path to the basket long enough for him to have to pull the ball out and give Jackson and Olynyk a chance to switch back to their more favorable matchups. The Bulls – after adding DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball as expensive pieces over the summer to pair with All-Stars LaVine and Vucevic – expect to field a top-10 offense this season. That the Pistons were able to hold Chicago under 100 percent, small sample size or not, gives Casey a foundation to build off.