The Pistons said all along their defense would have to carry them until players who only met a month ago figured each other out. It took a few games, but the defense indeed carried the Pistons to their first win of the season – on the first day of the new year, no less.
After young Boston stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown led the Celtics back from a 21-point first-half hole to lead by five past the midway point of the fourth quarter, it looked like the Pistons were headed for a 0-5 record. But their defense held Boston scoreless over the game’s final 4:15 spanning eight possessions.
“It’s always great hearing that,” Derrick Rose said with a smile even a mask couldn’t completely conceal after the 96-93 win. “Especially winning with defense. Your shots are not going to fall every night but something that should be consistent is your defense. We harped on that from the beginning of the year. Everybody’s got to have one common goal and that’s to let teams know when they come here it’s going to be that kind of grimy game.”
Rose scored 17 points and it was his trademark power drive with 1:20 left that put the Pistons ahead for good at 94-93. The Pistons had to survive six more Boston missed shots to pull out the win, including Jaylen Brown’s attempted tying triple out of a timeout with 5.6 seconds left after Mason Plumlee’s free throw put the Pistons ahead by three.
“I think it’s something to hang our hat on,” said Plumlee, whose 17 rebounds – five on the offensive end – were a critical element of a defense that held Boston to 93 points and forced 21 turnovers. “In preseason, we were a really good defense by the numbers. That can be our calling card, especially in fourth quarters of games.”
It wasn’t just the veterans – Rose’s 17 points, Plumlee’s 17 boards, Jerami Grant’s 24 points as he continues his strong start. It was also the kids. Rookie Saddiq Bey established new highs with 17 points and seven rebounds. Isiah Stewart, staying put as the backup center even with Jahlil Okafor back from his ankle injury, had eight points and six boards. Killian Hayes went scoreless and missed all five shots, but contributed six assists with just two turnovers in 23 minutes.
When Boston started assaulting the lead in the third quarter after trailing by 15 at halftime, it was Bey – who hit 4 of 4 from the 3-point arc in the quarter and 5 of 8 for the game – who kept the Pistons ahead.
“He’s very mature in his approach,” Plumlee said of the Villanova rookie. “He’s super steady. He takes the shots that are there. You feel like you’re playing with a veteran when you’re playing with him.”
Bey has quickly won the confidence of not just Dwane Casey, who started him in Blake Griffin’s stead as Griffin sat out in concussion protocol, but of his veteran teammates.
“I was a fan of him right when I saw him play at Villanova,” Rose said. “Right when we picked him, I knew we had an asset. He’s a shooter. Whenever I’m out there with him, I always keep an eye on him and see where he is on the floor. Tonight he played great.”
But for all the key baskets from Bey and Rose and Grant, it was the defense that carried the Pistons to their first win. And down the stretch, Casey had three versatile and interchangeable defenders – Grant, Bey and Josh Jackson, all of them 6-foot-8 – on the floor to stymie the Celtics. For the last possession, he brought in a fourth big, versatile wing, Sekou Doumbouya, for Rose.
“I thought our defense carried us,” Casey said. “In the stretches we needed defensive stops, we got ’em. That’s who we have to be each and every night until we get our offense clicking and our shots falling the way we want to.”