Grant reminds Denver what they had, but doesn’t get enough help as Pistons fall to Nuggets
Garrett Ellwood (NBAE/Getty)
Jerami Grant came to Detroit in large part for the bigger role that awaited him with the Pistons and demonstrated in his return to Denver he was eminently worthy of that opportunity. His former team proved it takes more than one player performing at star level to translate into team success – or even two.
Grant held up his end of the bargain, scoring 29 points in less than 30 minutes, hitting 11 of 18 shots and 3 of 5 from the 3-point arc. Rookie Saddiq Bey – putting his name in the record book a few more times – proved a worthy sidekick, adding 25 in only 24 minutes.
But the Pistons lacked the necessary punch beyond Grant and Bey to keep pace with a Denver offense that’s been functioning at preposterous levels since adding Aaron Gordon from Orlando at the trade deadline – like a 133.9 offensive efficiency rating from its starting unit.
“They’re a great team. They’ve got a lot of different weapons,” said Grant, who scored 16 in the first 10 minutes and left with the Pistons ahead 32-30. Denver outscored the Pistons 9-0 before the quarter ended and kept pushing from there. “They’ve got a lot of talent and they know how to play basketball. Definitely a championship-caliber team.”
The Nuggets came up one point short of matching the highest total the Pistons have given up this season in the 134-119 decision – and it took the Lakers two overtimes to get to 135 back in early February. And Denver did all of that without Jamal Murray and his 21 points a game. MVP candidate – some would say front-runner – Nikola Jokic finished with 27 points, eight rebounds and 11 assists and didn’t play in the fourth quarter.
“He’s definitely one of the (MVP) candidates,” Dwane Casey said. “He makes their team better. Everybody moves off of him. He makes everybody around him better with his passing, with his 3-point shooting, with his diversity. He has to be in that conversation.”
The Pistons were supposed to play at Denver two months ago, but a false positive COVID-19 test scuttled that game just minutes from tipoff. The Pistons would have been better off playing it then than catching the Nuggets at their hottest – and with the Pistons on a back to back.
“This is one of the toughest teams to play on a back to back. That’s not an excuse; it’s just reality,” Casey said. “The first three plays of the game was indicative of our lack of concentration and focus. We were supposed to be shooting the gaps on their (dribble handoffs) and we went over the top. Those things, you can’t do against a great player like Jokic. He picks you apart.”
The Nuggets scored 40 points in the paint in the first half alone. The 9-0 run to end the first quarter and an 11-0 run to end the half accounted for the 20-point halftime deficit the Pistons faced despite getting 20 from Grant and 19 from Bey. Bey hit 6 of 12 3-point shots and that gives him four games this season with at least six triples, tying the NBA rookie record held by Juan Carlos Navarro (2007-08) and Coby White (2019-20). Bey has 20 games left to break the tie.
“He’s just a keeper,” Casey said of the Villanova rookie, whose first triple of the night – his 106th of the season – established a Pistons rookie record he shared with Brandon Knight, Bey doing it in his 50th game to Knight’s 66 in 2011-12. “He’s part of our building blocks and a great kid. That’s something I’m happy to see him achieve in his rookie year.”
The Pistons held rookie Killian Hayes out, a precautionary measure on the advice of their medical staff with Hayes just two games into his return following a three-month absence with a hip injury. Saben Lee, their other rookie point guard, started and contributed seven assists in 15 minutes but went scoreless on only one shot. The three other starters besides Grant and Bey combined for 11 points.
Grant came out knowing the Pistons needed his scoring if they were going to keep up with Denver’s torrid offense, but he didn’t force anything, passing for four assists.
“I know I’ve got to be aggressive to give us a chance,” he said. “I just wanted to come out. They were giving me some things that I usually don’t see, so I just wanted to be aggressive and take some shots.”
“Always in that situation, you have a sense of urgency when you go to play a team you used to play for,” Casey said. “Play a little harder, a little faster and have a little pep in your step. He did tonight. We just didn’t have enough other guys to join him.”
It wasn’t so long ago – before Denver hit on Jokic in the second round and grabbed Murray in the middle of the lottery before Jokic had flowered into an MVP candidate – that Denver found itself at the crossroads the Pistons now face. Troy Weaver took as many shots as possible at landing some building blocks in his first off-season as general manager, the addition of Grant the most significant to date.
“Denver took some bumps in the road before they got to where they are,” Casey said. “Jerami has bought into it. He is a big part of our future going forward. We have to mold things around him and add a co-rider with him to compete on the level you guys are here and we will have a good foundation. Jerami has been special to us. We’re excited he’s with us and he’s going to be a big part of our future.”