Missing Cunningham & Grant, Pistons find a silver lining in Killian Hayes’ outing amid loss to Hawks

While the Pistons wait for their 2021 No. 1 pick’s debut, their 2020 lottery pick showed up on Monday night to provide the silver lining to the season’s third straight defeat out of the chute.

Killian Hayes, who endured rough outings in consecutive losses to Chicago to open the season, found his footing on Monday as the Pistons dropped a 122-104 game to Atlanta. If it wasn’t a coming-out party, necessarily, it at least gave the 20-year-old a springboard to get his second season on track.

“You’ve got to keep playing, play with confidence, play within the offense,” Hayes said after scoring 12 points and not committing a turnover in 27 minutes running the offense. “I always keep my head up. The past two games were hard, but I try to keep my head up and keep on going forward.”

The Pistons await the return of the draft’s top pick, Cade Cunningham, a player whose playmaking and shooting ability should do wonders both for a struggling offense and for the benefit of Hayes, alleviating the pressure of being the starting unit’s sole playmaker. But it wasn’t only Cunningham missing on Monday against an opponent that reached the Eastern Conference finals over the summer. The Pistons also went without leading scorer Jerami Grant, out with an elbow injury, costing Hayes another pressure-release valve.

In their two losses to Chicago to open the 2021-22 season, the Pistons held the Bulls under 100 points each time but averaged only 85 points while shooting less than 20 percent from the 3-point arc.

Dwane Casey responded to Grant’s absence by elevating Kelly Olynyk to the starting lineup. He also plugged Josh Jackson into that unit for another struggling starter, Frank Jackson, the placeholder for Cunningham’s spot in the lineup.

But those two moves came at the expense of a bench unit Casey had pegged as the team’s strength entering the season. And with veteran Cory Joseph also off to an uneven start, the bench cost the Pistons in Monday’s loss. While Atlanta outscored the Pistons by just six points while Hayes was at point guard, the Hawks were 17 points better than the Pistons in Joseph’s 16 minutes.

Frank Jackson was minus-21 in 14 minutes and rookie Luka Garza, playing rotation minutes with Olynyk plugging Grant’s void at power forward, ended a minus-22 in 13 minutes. Atlanta essentially took control of the game with a 13-4 run over the last four minutes of the third quarter against the bench, bumping a seven-point lead to 16.

“I thought when things got tough, we kind of let our guard down defensively,” Casey said. “We weren’t making shots. We knew that. In our first two games, we made up for it with our defensive intensity and we let our guard down tonight. Trae Young had something to do with it, but it doesn’t stop our defensive intensity, our defensive mojo. I thought we lost that. Our second unit came in and kind of let down the mojo a little bit.”

Olynyk and Saddiq Bey scored 21 apiece, Josh Jackson added 18 and the Pistons showed marginal improvement in their 3-point shooting (9 of 33, 27 percent) and in reducing turnovers from their average of 20 through two games to 14, though the Hawks punished them by converting the miscues into 22 points.

“It was a lower number, but it was the type of turnovers,” Casey said. “Live-ball turnovers. They’re going down dunking, the crowd’s going crazy. It was the type of turnovers.”

But none of them were Hayes’ doing and given his prominence in the Pistons universe, it was something to take out of Monday’s loss.

“I thought he did a good job playing with pace, pushing the basketball,” Casey said. “He was decisive in his playmaking and his decisions. I thought that helped him a little with some of his shots. He was decisive, had balance.”

Hayes hit 2 of 3 3-pointers and endured some tough luck on stronger moves that resulted in misses inside the paint, finishing 2 of 8 inside the 3-point line. He had three assists and could have had double that with better shooting around him. Jackson cited Hayes’ penetration and generally more assertive demeanor.

“It helps us a lot,” Josh Jackson said. “Obviously, the defense has to collapse when guys attack the paint and we get in there, that opens the floor for our shooters. We didn’t knock down too many of them today, but we did get the right shots that we wanted.”

“I’m not worried about Killian’s shooting. I’m worried about him running the team,” Casey said. “And I thought he did a good job, point-guard wise. His shooting’s going to come.”