In a season of the unexpected, the Pistons view progress through a different lens

Isaiah Stewart
Rookie center Isaiah Stewart gave the Pistons 9 points and 7 rebounds in a 17-minute stint during Wednesday’s loss to Milwaukee
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

The Pistons will have a little longer to chew on Wednesday’s loss to Milwaukee than they might have expected, but then Dwane Casey’s mantra to them since the day training camp opened in December – and the fact training camp opened in December is the first clue that something is amiss – was to expect the unexpected.

Minutes before Wednesday’s tipoff of what became a 110-101 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, the Pistons learned their Friday game with Washington at Little Caesars Arena would be postponed. That’s after three Wednesday NBA games were postponed as the COVID-19 pandemic has peaked with more than a million new cases being added nationally every week.

“This year, there’s nothing about the NBA that surprises me,” Casey said. “Whether it’s a game canceled, whatever it is. We have to expect the unexpected. That’s what you have to be ready for.”

Next up for the Pistons is a set of games at Miami on Saturday and Monday, but that could be jeopardized, as well. Miami played on Tuesday with the minimum required to be able to go, eight players, and is looking at the same situation for its scheduled game on Thursday at Philadelphia.

“It kind of reminds me of this past draft process where a lot of things were uncertain,” Pistons rookie Isaiah Stewart said. “You weren’t sure what would happen. We had a meeting about all the new protocols. Everything is day to day. That’s how I’m taking it.”

Stewart, 19, played perhaps his best game of a career in its infancy against Milwaukee, finishing with nine points, seven rebounds a block and an assist in 17 minutes. Through the ups and downs of a season played under unprecedented conditions, the progress of Stewart and the eight other Pistons players on a 17-man roster 23 or younger will be the measure of success more than wins and losses.

The Pistons acknowledged that much consistently over the off-season when nobody from ownership to Casey prioritized a playoff berth. General manager Troy Weaver spoke of fielding a competitive team – one that would embrace the toughness and selflessness of the championship eras that serve as tent poles for the franchise – but went out of his way to turn a single pick on draft night into four.

And Casey has embraced the challenge of developing those young players while putting the Pistons in position to make fourth quarters meaningful. They managed to do so again against Milwaukee, the team with more regular-season wins over the last two-plus seasons than any franchise, despite scoring a season-worst 13 points in the first quarter and falling 23 points behind in the first half.

When Wayne Ellington hit the first basket of the third quarter, the Pistons were within eight points. But Milwaukee, with two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo posting a triple-double (22 points, 10 boards, 10 assists) and the Bucks hitting 44 percent on 43 3-point attempts, simply had too much firepower.

“We shot way too many mid-range shots tonight,” Casey said after the Pistons shot 39 percent overall but 40 percent on their 35 3-point shots. “That’s what that team wants you to do. That team wants you to shoot the low-percentage, low-efficiency shots and we missed a ton of them.”

The Pistons got 22 points from Jerami Grant, the 10th straight game he’s scored 20 or more points, and 12 points, seven rebounds and six assists from Blake Griffin.

Grant isn’t a member of the 23-and-under club, but at 26 he stands as a pillar of the Pistons future. Who joins him in that company is for the rest of the season to sort out, but Stewart, fellow rookie Saddiq Bey, Josh Jackson and Svi Mykhailiuk all added to their cases on Wednesday.

Mykhailiuk’s outing was especially encouraging as he scored 18 points in 18 minutes off the bench. A breakout second season in which Mykhailiuk shot 40 percent from the 3-point arc was enough to make the Ukrainian native safe from the roster purge that saw only four holdovers from last season retained. He entered the Milwaukee game shooting just 29 percent from the 3-point line in 10 games, though his expanded portfolio now gives him other ways to contribute.

“I was really glad, more than anything else, the bounce back in his confidence,” Casey said. “The young man had a rough night against Utah the other night, but he had the confidence and the swagger to come back and not even hesitate.”

Mykhailiuk hit 2 of 4 from the 3-point arc, but also made 4 of 5 inside the arc and 4 of 5 at the line, showing dimensions not in evidence a year ago.

“It was big because people play me as a shooter,” he said. “I try to make the right play every time. If they run me off, I try to make the right play.”

Jackson, the fourth-year player who was the No. 4 pick in the 2017 draft, missed two games with a sprained ankle and struggled after returning to the lineup against Utah on Sunday. He started slowly again, but began flashing the athleticism and two-way effectiveness against Milwaukee as the game unfolded. He finished with 11 points and three assists and hit 2 of 3 from the 3-point arc.

Bey made it three bench players in double figures, scoring 10 points and hitting two 3-pointers, making it eight of his 10 games in which he’s made at least two 3-point shots. He came into the game leading all NBA rookies in 3-pointers made.

The third of the three Pistons draft choices still standing after lottery pick Killian Hayes was lost to a hip injury last week, Saben Lee, also played 13 minutes and scored four points while flashing the athleticism and doggedness that drew the Pistons to him.

“He came in and gave us some energy,” Casey said. “He does have the hops and the athleticism to go in and make those plays. As a young team, we just made enough mistakes at the right time to put ourselves in a hole.”

And then he uttered the words that will stand as the true mark of how far the Pistons can move the ball down the field in this most unusual of seasons: “Once we mature and get our chemistry together, good things will happen.”

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