In a season of twists and turns, Jordan McRae’s saga in loss to OKC symbolizes Pistons fortunes
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
DETROIT – In a season of unforeseeable turns and unimaginable misfortune, it speaks volumes that Jordan McRae’s day began unemployed in Denver and ended with the Pistons entrusting him with crunch-time minutes.
Christian Wood scored a career-high 29 points and McRae scored 15 despite scant familiarity with his teammates or Dwane Casey’s playbook – and if there were a scintilla of mercy in the script the Pistons would have come away with a win for valor in the face of adversity.
But the NBA remains the ultimate meritocracy and Oklahoma City got the break it needed when Chris Paul’s bulldozing of Brandon Knight wasn’t called a charge in the final minute. The Pistons wound up victimized by Danilo Gallinari’s 3-point shot to punctuate that possession. Instead of having the ball trailing by a point, the Pistons found themselves down four with 21 seconds to play after wiping out a deficit that reached 16 at one point with a 16-2 fourth-quarter run.
“It was one play. I thought it was a charge and officials saw it differently,” Casey said after the 114-107 loss dropped the Pistons to 20-43. “That was the key play. We were down one and they hit a three out of that. But that’s the breaks of the game.”
The Pistons continue to battle remarkably hard against teams jockeying for playoff positions long after their season pointed toward the draft lottery. It would have been easy, given the 16-point deficit and the absence of Derrick Rose leaving Brandon Knight as the only player on the roster with appreciable point guard experience, for the Pistons to shrug and accept a drubbing.
“I felt like everybody today came together, especially at the end,” Wood said after hitting 12 of 16 shots and 5 of 6 threes with the only miss coming with 13 seconds left after the Gallinari triple. “In the second half, we came back – we fought back – and that’s what we need. Young guys are doing great. We’ve just got to keep at it.”
“That’s one thing I love about this group,” Casey said. “They compete. They’re playing hard. We’ve got a lot of growing up to do. We have a lot of men in a lot of situations that they’ve not been in before.”
Knight played 38 minutes and gave the Pistons 16 points and seven assists against just two turnovers as they began life without Rose, who suffered a sprained ankle in Sunday’s loss to Sacramento. With Bruce Brown missing a fourth straight game with a knee contusion, Casey had to turn to Khyri Thomas – playing in only his fourth game since a long injury absence – who has almost zero experience at point guard for backup minutes.
“He’s playing probably on fumes,” Casey said of Knight. “But that’s why the point guard position is so, so important. That’s the frustrating part. I think if you had another …” and there Casey’s voice trailed off, wistfully envisioning the possibilities once he can marry his scheme to the type of playmaking guards to power it appropriately.
Like the guards who lined up for Oklahoma City, perhaps. Chris Paul, Shea Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder combined for 65 points and 18 assists on 26 of 39 shooting for the Thunder. Paul’s final assist came on the Gallinari triple after Knight took a shoulder to the chest and stumbled backward to the floor, no call made.
That shot all but eliminated any chance for McRae’s whirlwind day to end in fairy-tale fashion. The Pistons claimed him after Denver waived him on Monday. McRae boarded his flight in Denver at noon Mountain time and landed in Detroit at 4:45 p.m. He came straight to the arena, took his physical, had a rudimentary playbook crammed in his backpack and got about five minutes to warm up.
Casey threw him in to start the second quarter and McRae scored 10 first-half points on his way to 15.
“Right now, I’m a little tired,” he admitted, a box of food in his hand, the first chance he’d had to eat since departing Denver. “It’s been a long day.”
It’s been a long season for the Pistons, who will use the final 19 games to push the development of their young players as far as they can while on the lookout for undervalued players – perhaps like McRae – who could help in the transition phase they’re about to enter.
“We’ve got a lot of guys playing now that were on the second and third team,” Casey said. “That’s what it is. I enjoy it. I get frustrated after games like tonight where we play well but not good enough to win. But that encourages me in that once we do get where we’re going – add some pieces, draft, whatever it is, add talent – it’s going to be something special. Hopefully, our fans see it. But we have a lot of work to do in that area.”