Injuries compound Pistons inconsistencies: ‘We’re going to get better’

Not having Ish Smith has made the task of puzzling together an effective bench unit all the more challenging for Dwane Casey
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS – Dwane Casey’s bench salvaged a lot of wins for the Pistons over the season’s first few months, but Saturday’s loss to Utah is one they’d all like to erase.

The bench was in during the second quarter when Utah, held to 13 points and 19 percent shooting in the first quarter, went on a 14-0 run to all but wipe out an 18-point lead. When Casey tried to buy some time for a late push by stars Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, a four-point lead in the fourth quarter became a two-point deficit in less than two minutes while both sat.

“The second unit last night, for whatever reason …,” Casey began after Sunday’s practice, then citing one of those reasons. A pretty big one, too. The Pistons were again without both the motor and the guiding force of the second unit, Ish Smith and Zaza Pachulia. The Pistons have had a month to adapt to Smith’s absence, so perhaps Pachulia was the player most missed.

At least during that 14-0 run, Pachulia’s ability to create good shots with a rib-rattling screen or a precisely executed dribble handoff might have broken up Utah’s momentum and given a team playing a back to back no reason to believe it could get back in the game.

“It would have helped a lot,” Casey conceded. “First of all, giving us a hub to play offense around. Zaza, like Blake (Griffin), is a quasi-ballhandler with the second unit, quarterbacking at the elbow. We missed that. But injuries are part of the NBA. I don’t want to use that as an excuse.”

Smith and Pachulia – and though no timetable has been set for either’s return, there is optimism that both are close – also represent one quality Casey finds in short supply these days: certainty. As in what he can expect on a consistent basis.

“One of these days, we’re going to get where I know exactly what I’m going to get from you and exactly what I’m going to get your from you and exactly what I’m going to get from you,” Casey said by way of discussing the difficulty in managing the minutes of Griffin and Andre Drummond in a game where the bench can’t generate any traction. “We’re a couple of men down in that second unit and guys not normally there are there, but it’s the NBA. They’ve got to be ready.”

Casey isn’t pointing fingers at anyone and includes the coaching staff’s responsibility to raise everyone’s level of play and put players in situations most conducive to their and team success. But it ultimately comes down to individuals maintaining a semblance of consistency.

The inability of anyone to seize the fifth starter’s position caused disruption with the second unit that was compounded by the run of injuries to Smith and others. Luke Kennard, expected to be a key part of the second unit, missed 16 games with a separated shoulder and only recently appeared to turn the corner with three straight double-figure outings – before Saturday’s two-point showing.

Casey gets that those factors on top of having a first-year coach implementing a significantly different offensive system delay the process of setting chemistry, but it doesn’t make it easier to endure. At this point of the season, a coach hopes he has a blueprint for how he’ll use personnel every night.

“You would hope so. Midway through the season, you do,” Casey said. “We’re still feeling our way through. One night Luke has it, next night he doesn’t. Next night Langston (Galloway) has it. What I’m trying to do to help them is have a set time to put them in when they know they’re going in. Getting that consistency is huge for our team. Not just from one guy; from all of us. We kind of know what Blake’s going to do. You know what Andre’s going to do rebounding.”

After that, it’s hit or miss. Casey thought a corner might have been turned in Saturday’s first quarter when the Pistons were crisp on offense and knit tightly on defense.

“The first quarter, that made me feel good,” he said. “It’s finally sinking in. Not only offensively, but defensively was some of our better possessions protecting the paint. But … believe me, talking to other coaches, we’re not the only team going through it.”

For all of that, Casey remains upbeat. He sees things in practice to offer encouragement and hears players identifying their missteps in video reviews.

“It’s the thought process, the confidence, the feel of being in the moment is what we’ve got to get better at,” Casey said. “We’re going to get better.”