The Pistons master plan assuredly included an increasingly prominent role for Isaiah Stewart as his rookie season unfolded. But master plans always are subject to the volatility of NBA reality. And so it was that Stewart earned a battlefield promotion Thursday when Mason Plumlee was a late scratch on top of the prolonged absence of Jahlil Okafor at center.
And it was a particularly bad night to be down two big bodies.
“We definitely missed both of those guys today,” said Josh Jackson, whose career renaissance continued with another 18-point, eight-rebound, four-assist showing. “They bring a lot to the team – toughness and just having that presence down there.”
“This team is beat-you-up, bang-you, wear-you-down – and that’s what they did,” Dwane Casey said after Indiana’s 111-95 win. “We got bumped and hit and didn’t respond in a proper way. We talked about it before the game. It was going to be a different approach than we had to have against Brooklyn.”
The Pistons beat the Nets, with one of the NBA’s most porous defense but its most explosive offense, on Tuesday night – and then the Nets turned around and blitzed the Pacers on Wednesday. But Indiana shot 45 percent from the 3-point arc and the Pistons shot just 17.9 percent, hitting 5 of 28.
You wouldn’t think to link Plumlee’s absence to the ugly 3-point shooting numbers – he’s 0 of 5 for the season and 2 of 37 over his eight-year NBA career, after all – but missing his rib-rattling screens and the threat of his rolls and lob-dunk targets surely had some impact on the Pistons and their 95-point night.
“You miss that. You miss the rolling, you miss the screening, you miss the length and the size against (Domantas) Sabonis,” Casey said. “Isaiah scrapped as much as he could, but he’s a young kid and Sabonis is a veteran scorer inside. (Plumlee) brings a lot to the game. Brings the (dribble handoffs), the rolling, putting pressure on the paint. You miss all of that.”
Stewart blew past his career highs in minutes (31) and points (17), hitting 8 of 9 shots. He blocked a shot, picked up an assist and registered two steals, as well. He would have hit his second triple in two games, too, but it was wiped out by a whistle away from the play. The Pistons couldn’t be more thrilled with what they’ve gotten from the 19-year-old and what they project for him, but they weren’t ready to make him the starter quite yet.
“Isaiah, he tried. He’s getting there,” Casey said. “But he’s not quite where Mason is as far as that part of the game.”
One encouraging sign of progress for Stewart, though, who’s been understandably foul prone as most young big men are: He picked up four in 31 minutes while splitting time guarding Sabonis and Myles Turner but for the most part avoided overaggressive fouls or reaches.
“He had one right at the end where Sabonis tricked him into the pump fake 3-point shot, but he’s going to learn,” Casey said. “I wouldn’t trade his intensity, his disposition, his earnest approach for anything in the world. That kid, he’s going to be OK. These are growing pains for all of us, so we’ve got to learn from it.”
Stewart, lauded by Plumlee after a few weeks of camp as having the best mindset of any young player he’d come across, is a model understudy who has benefited from the example and counsel of Plumlee.
“As I sit on the bench and I watch Mason, I notice all the little things he does that don’t show up in the stats,” Stewart said of Plumlee, who’s been at the top of his game over the past few weeks, averaging 13.1 points and 9.5 rebounds on 70 percent shooting over his previous eight games. “Mason is very important to our team. I definitely appreciate him. I’m a guy who does the little things, as well. That’s just one of the traits you have when you work hard.”
Jackson, whose prominence on a second unit that’s led all benches in scoring output per game becomes even greater with Derrick Rose traded, says he was excited for Stewart to get his first career start.
“I’m confident in Isaiah,” he said. “I know he’s a fearless guy, very tough, very strong. I know he was excited to get the start today. I knew he would take advantage of every moment and that’s exactly what he did.”
Stewart’s contributions might have helped produce a win on another night, but not when pretty much all of his teammates struggled to score from the perimeter. The Pistons managed a healthy 62 points in the paint, but never put together any runs because of their subpar 3-point shooting.
Jerami Grant finished with nine points on 4 of 17 shooting, having his franchise-best 23-game streak of games with multiple 3-pointers made snapped when a late second-quarter triple was reviewed and changed to a 2-point basket. He was 1 of 6 from three – the same lines put up by both Blake Griffin and Wayne Ellington. Delon Wright and Jackson both were 0 of 2 from the arc. The only Pistons player who made more than one 3-pointer was rookie Saddiq Bey, who hit 2 of 5 and finished with 10 points.
“No excuse for that,” Casey said, who also felt the shooting eventually affected the Pistons defensively. “We had some wide-open looks. Can’t say that was anybody else but the person taking the shot.”