‘That’s just good basketball’ – Pistons ambush Lakers late to score a character-building win

The Pistons have invested heavily in their future, but immediate dividends still get paid most reliably by veterans. And all those kids who were a part of Thursday’s 107-92 win over the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers need to experience a few positive outcomes amid the travails of learning on the job in the unyielding world of the NBA.

“It was great to see,” 19-year-old Isaiah Stewart said of watching veteran teammates go on a 16-0 run down the stretch to turn a one-point game into a runaway win. “It was very great to see. They closed out the game. They stayed together no matter what. That was great to see.”

The oldest Piston, 12-year veteran Wayne Ellington, was front and center in lifting the Pistons to their second straight home win after knocking off Eastern Conference heavyweight Philadelphia earlier in the week. Ellington hit 6 of 9 from the 3-point arc – the eighth straight game he’s made at least four triples, putting him in exclusive NBA company – and finished with 20 points.

It was the last of Ellington’s 3-pointers that proved the game’s biggest shot, coming in the middle of that 16-0 Pistons run and with 4:14 to play. It gave the Pistons the game’s first double-digits lead, 98-87, and took the air out of any possible Lakers comeback.

“In today’s game, you have to have basketball IQ to defend and also basketball IQ on the offensive end. Wayne has the entire package,” Dwane Casey said. “The way he works … I’m an old-school guy and it says something about karma. Your heart’s in the right place, your mind’s in the right place, good things happen.”

With Thursday’s 6 of 9 in the books, Ellington is now shooting 55.2 percent in January from the 3-point arc, the best monthly figure in franchise history with one game remaining, Saturday at Golden State.

“He just single-handedly spaces out the floor on offense when you have to give that much attention to somebody,” Mason Plumlee said. “Coach always draws up a good first play to get him off, he hits it and the rest of the night the team worries about him coming off pin-downs. It changes the dynamic of your offense.”

Ellington wasn’t alone in giving the Pistons 3-point firepower this time, though. Blake Griffin, shooting 32 percent from the 3-point line so far this season, hit 5 of 10 in a 23-point, six-assist game in 35 minutes after sitting out Wednesday’s loss at Cleveland.

“I thought we were good,” Griffin said. “Defensively, scrambling. Making the extra pass – three guys with six assists and only nine turnovers. That’s just good basketball. I was proud of the way everybody played.”

With the other 19-year-old rookie, Killian Hayes, out with a hip injury, the Pistons are starting a veteran first unit now with three 30-somethings in Ellington, Griffin and Plumlee to go with Jerami Grant and Delon Wright. It was 88-87 with 7:27 to play when Casey brought Ellington and Wright back into the game to reunite the starters. And that’s when the 16-0 run began.

For a team that until losing by 15 in Cleveland 24 hours earlier had only dropped one game all season by more than 10 points – and yet still had just a 4-14 record to show for it – getting win No. 5 against a team the quality of the Lakers held resonance.

“It’s big, man,” Plumlee said. “Especially coming off a game like we had in Cleveland. We really haven’t been blown out at all this year. We did not play well in Cleveland, so to bounce back – level playing field, both teams on a back to back – I just thought it showed a lot of character. I think we were at our best starting and finishing quarters.”

The Lakers played without Anthony Davis, but LeBron James looked fully engaged to start the night after Los Angeles lost by a point at Philadelphia on Wednesday. He hit his first seven shots – three of them from the 3-point arc – and had 20 points by the midway point of the second quarter. But James finished with 22, going 1 of 12 the rest of the way.

It was a good win to take on the road for the Pistons, who embark on a five-game Western Conference road swing with Saturday’s game at the Warriors.

“It’s good for us to get that confidence to reinforce what you’re preaching,” Casey said. “Taking care of the ball, defending, playing together, playing with a pure heart and you’re getting your butt kicked every night, that doesn’t build very much character.”