Three quick observations from Monday night’s 129-103 win over the Denver Nuggets at Little Caesars Arena
FULL 48 – For a while there, it appeared the Pistons and Nuggets were about to challenge the record for the NBA’s highest-scoring game between … the Pistons and Nuggets. The Pistons won that 1983 game 186-184 and it took triple overtime. Five minutes into Monday’s biggest win of the season with the Nuggets ahead 20-18, they were on pace for a 192-173 score in regulation. Down three starters, Denver – on top of the Western Conference with a 37-15 record at tipoff – didn’t have the firepower to keep it up. The Pistons got much better production off their bench, superb ball movement in racking up a season-high 32 assists and the 48-minute focus that failed them in losing a 23-point in the final 17 minutes their last time out. Andre Drummond outplayed All-Star Nikola Jokic, finishing with a season-high 27 points to go with 12 rebounds, three blocks and three assists. In the third quarter alone, Drummond offensive rebounds resulted in four put-backs and two made free throws. Denver played without three starters – the backcourt of Jamal Murray and Gary Harris plus veteran forward Paul Millsap – but has been getting superb production of late from backup guards Monte Morris and Malik Beasley, who’d led the Nuggets in scoring in their last three games.
BOUNCING BACK – One game after Dwane Casey’s bench was outscored 80-17, the unit bounced back with a much stronger performance. Casey has fretted about extending his starters’ minutes due to the bench’s ineffectiveness, but against Denver he started his substitution pattern earlier. All five starters were out of the game before the first and third quarters ended. And the bench expanded the lead to start both the second and fourth quarters. Stanley Johnson had one of his best games of the season, finishing with 21 points, six rebounds, two assists, two steals and a blocked shot. It was only the third time this season he’d made as many as four 3-pointers in a game and the first since Dec. 17. Langston Galloway added 18, Luke Kennard added 14 points and Ish Smith five assists in his second game since returning from his second bout with a right adductor injury. The bench, one game after scoring just 17 points, combined for 60 this time. That unit put together a 12-0 run early in a second quarter in which the Pistons outscored Denver 34-19. Casey went with Zaza Pachulia, Johnson, Kennard, Galloway and Smith primarily, though he got rookie Khyri Thomas into the mix late in the quarter, as well, with the starters except with Thomas in at fellow rookie Bruce Brown’s spot. It was a 12-2 run for the bench to start the fourth quarter, taking a 14-point lead to 24.
HIDDEN NUGGET – Monte Morris was drafted 51st out of Iowa State in 2017 but he’s solidified his status as a bone fide NBA point guard in his second season after playing a total of 25 minutes over three games last season. Morris – a Flint native who won Michigan’s 2013 Mr. Basketball award in a narrow vote over Derrick Walton, who played at Michigan and spent last season on a two-way contract with the Miami Heat – has emerged as a quality backup and handled the starting job with aplomb over the last five games for injured Jamal Murray. A four-year starter at Iowa State, Morris was known for clutch play and taking care of the basketball. He’s continued to exhibit the latter trait in the NBA, committing just 1.0 turnover per 36 minutes. Pistons coach Dwane Casey said Morris reminds him of Fred Van Vleet, undrafted out of Wichita State in 2016 but – after a year spent largely in the G League, where Morris cut his teeth last year – became point guard of Toronto’s highly effective bench unit under Casey last season. It’s the kind of success story the Pistons need to hit on to rebuild their depth. Morris scored 11 first-quarter points and finished with 18 points in 34 minutes on 8 of 13 shooting with three assists and no turnovers.