Pistons let a ‘winnable game’ get away as Orlando finds its second gear to pull away

Individually, a lot of the young players the Pistons are grooming for better days ahead gave them cause for optimism in the season’s 65th game. Collectively, the defense they’re hoping to build as the foundation for a third championship era of Pistons basketball was … well, less than championship quality.

“That’s what we’re trying to build – holding ourselves to that level of greatness,” Pistons newcomer Hamidou Diallo said after the 119-112 loss to Orlando. “That’s the level of greatness we chase every day, coming in and being locked in and doing the extra things to help the Detroit Pistons win games.”

It was a game heavy with lottery implications from teams with equally lengthy injury lists, the Pistons coming into the night with the NBA’s second-worst record but Orlando only one game worse. With each team left with seven remaining games, the Pistons are now 19-46 while Orlando, at 21-44, has the same number of wins as Oklahoma City and Cleveland. Minnesota, at 20-45, is currently in the No. 3 position for the June 22 draft lottery. Houston, with 16 wins, is likely to go into the lottery with the worst record.

All of that mattered none to the youngest starting lineup in Pistons history, averaging 20 years 11 months. Diallo, 22, got his first start with the Pistons and finished with 16 points and seven rebounds.

“He’s aggressive. He attacked. He’s super athletic,” Frank Jackson, also 22, said of Diallo. “It’s great to see him grabbing those rebounds at the rim. He’s always in attack mode and playing hard.”

Rookie Saddiq Bey led the Pistons with 26 points and sparked a fourth-quarter rally that trimmed a 14-point deficit to three in less than three minutes, hitting two triples and converting a steal into a dunk during the run.

Rookie point guards Killian Hayes and Saben Lee each registered seven assists and would have had a few more each if the Pistons hadn’t shot so poorly – 11 of 35 – from the 3-point arc. Bey (5 of 10) and Frank Jackson (3 of 7, 19 points) combined for eight of the 11 makes and Diallo hit 2 of 4. The rest of the team was 1 of 14 with both Sekou Doumbouya and Isaiah Stewart going 0 of 4.

But it was their defense, really, that undermined the Pistons. After holding Orlando to 21 first-quarter points, the Magic finished with three straight quarters of 30-plus points and scored 68 in the second half.

“They shot 60-some percent (actually, 72 percent), have to look it up, in the third quarter. It was some ungodly number,” Dwane Casey said. “I guess young guys think you don’t have to come out and compete every night. I don’t care who it is, you’ve got to come out and compete like your life depends on it and we didn’t do that.”

Even when the Pistons seemed to have momentum back on their side after cutting Orlando’s deficit to three with 3:29 to play, their defense didn’t seem to get any boost. Orlando scored on its next five possessions.

“I didn’t think we matched their intensity,” Jackson said. “They got too many open looks, too many layups in the second half. It felt like they were kind of getting whatever they wanted. We let up a little bit and they took advantage of it.”

For a young team that prides itself on its consistent competitiveness, the Pistons were most disappointed with that aspect of their night.

“We’ve got to focus on us and we’ve got to come out there and execute our game plan, compete on both ends of the court and make sure we’re aggressive on the defensive end,” Diallo said. “Throughout the whole game, we weren’t the aggressors. We had spurts we played well, but in this game you have to do it for 48. That was definitely a winnable game tonight.”

The Pistons led 45-36 midway through the second quarter when the game turned, Orlando closing the half on a 15-3 run to lead by three.

“We were making the right play, kickouts were there, we were moving the ball, we were guarding,” Casey said. “They thought it was going to be easy for the rest of the game. And that wasn’t the case.”

Diallo has only been with the Pistons for about six weeks, but long enough to know the history and the blueprint engineered by general manager Troy Weaver – part of the Oklahoma City front office that drafted him in 2018 – and Casey to emulate the gritty style of play responsible for the franchise’s three NBA titles.

“We all know what the old Detroit Pistons used to do on the floor,” he said. “We’re trying to rebuild that culture and that’s a high-level standard to hold us to. Every day, we wake up and go do our work. We have to know that’s the level we’re trying to live up to.”