Ish Smith – ‘the spirit of our team’ – returns as Pistons put up a fight at Utah

Ish Smith
Ish Smith missed 19 games with a thigh injury but returned as the second half of the season opened with a loss at Utah.
NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

SALT LAKE CITY – Ish Smith is back. The Pistons’ mojo showed signs it might be, too.

What Smith could mean for a second-half turnaround from the 18-23 record the Pistons posted over the first 41 games was on display in the first half of their 100-94 loss at Utah on Monday.

What Smith for certain means to the esprit de corps of the Pistons was on full display in the postgame locker room.

“We’re going to be good this year,” Smith said. “I’m telling you. You can mark it down right now, whatever date you want to mark it down. We’re going to continue to fight. We’re going to continue to push. We’re going to be exactly where we want to be at the end of the year.”

About 10 hours earlier, Dwane Casey stood on the Jazz home court and talked about what getting Smith back after missing 19 games with a torn thigh muscle would mean for the Pistons, who went 5-14 in Smith’s absence after a 13-9 record before his Dec. 5 injury.

“It’ll be great to get Ish back tonight,” he said. “He’s the spirit of our team – the speed of our team. He gets the tempo and pace going. Just his spirit and enthusiasm and the joy of our team. He’s always got a smile on his face and enjoys playing the game. That’s what we’ve got to do. He brings that to our squad.”

Smith’s timing wasn’t sharp and his mid-range game, often lethal, suffered for it. He finished 3 of 9 with eight points and two assists. Casey saw an extra dribble here and there that messed up the timing of plays funneled to Blake Griffin and resulted in him not having space to operate when the pass arrived.

But the bench – so good with Smith earlier in the season, a distinct weakness with him gone – had its best moments in weeks in Monday’s first half when Casey’s second unit contributed 25 of 59 points.

“We’ve just got to play with pace,” Smith said. “That first half, we played with great pace. We were really, really good. I just thought the second half, we just missed some shots we usually make. Blame it on the end of the road trip, whatever the case is.”

It was fair to wonder if the subpar production from the three starters Casey pushed past 40 minutes in Saturday’s emotional win over the Clippers in Griffin’s return paid the price at Utah. Griffin, coming off a 44-point game, didn’t score until late in the first half, finishing with 19 points. Andre Drummond rallied to get to 15 points and 13 rebounds, but Utah’s Rudy Gobert had 18 points and tied a career high with 25 boards as Utah outrebounded the Pistons 55-38. And Reggie Jackson’s outside shot was off all night as he finished with 11 points on 5 of 15 shooting.

But Casey saw fight through the fatigue – “I saw fight, I saw intensity, I saw a disposition that was here to win” – and was agitated by the wide disparity in free throws: Utah shot 36, the Pistons 16.

“I’ve got to go back and look at it. I may be overly critical, but 36 free throws to 16 – we were playing too hard and we left it out there on the floor,” he said. “I loved the way our guys competed.”

“It’s tough to beat somebody when you give them 20 more free throws,” Griffin said. “Everything else other than that looked pretty even as far as 3-point shooting. It was pretty even across the board – obviously, rebounding didn’t – but when they get to the free-throw line 20 more times than us, we’re going to be in a bit of a hole.”

Griffin felt the same competitiveness from his team that Casey sensed and also agreed with Smith’s assessment of where the second half could take the Pistons.

“We’ve shown in flashes what we’re capable of as a team, but you’re not a good team until you are consistent,” he said. “That’s been our downfall. You can’t just show it in flashes. (But) I’m with Ish. I think we’re going to figure it out. We have a lot of guys who play basketball the right way. Being healthy and continuing that, good things will happen. I’m a firm believer in that.”

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