‘That’s leadership’ – Ellington, Joseph team up to lead young Pistons over Memphis
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
A season devoted largely to developing young players was interrupted Thursday by an abiding truth: Veterans are an essential ingredient to winning NBA basketball games.
The Pistons didn’t have much choice but to use them when their backcourt was wiped out by illness and emergency – Killian Hayes coming down with an illness, Josh Jackson undergoing oral surgery and Hamidou Diallo unavailable for personal reasons.
So Cory Joseph and Wayne Ellington, with 22 NBA seasons between them, suited up after each missing the past four games, Joseph with a balky ankle, Ellington with calf soreness. All they did was score 18 points apiece and make the half-court offense hum like it hasn’t done often with the season largely turned over to the 24-and-under set and the keys in the hands of two rookie point guards, Hayes and Saben Lee.
“It was great having them back out there,” 19-year-old rookie Isaiah Stewart said after the 111-97 win over Memphis in which the Pistons shot 53 percent, had twice as many assists (24) as turnovers (12) and committed only 18 fouls to limit Memphis to 11 points at the foul line. “It’s definitely a different feeling with two vets like that on the floor. There was more talk on both ends of the floor. Heard their voices tonight.”
Memphis had ample motivation to win, too, the Grizzlies coming into the game at 33-32 and fighting to avoid the West’s 9-10 playoff game which would require two single-elimination contests to get in the first round of the playoffs. But after taking a seven-point first-quarter lead, the Grizzlies fell behind the Pistons four minutes into the second quarter and never caught up. They closed to within two points midway through the fourth quarter, but that’s when Casey brought back Joseph. The Pistons went on a 9-1 run, held Memphis without a basket for nearly four minutes and pulled away.
“We needed it,” Dwane Casey said. “We were teetering. Guys were kind of hanging their head and losing confidence a little bit. We understand – we’re rebuilding. But you’ve got to compete to win each night. That’s the motto we have. We had to play Cory. We had to play Wayne because of Hami and Josh being out, but we needed that – that continuity of building our culture and the belief in what we’re doing and what we’re selling. That’s what happened tonight.”
Joseph’s ability to orchestrate the half-court offense – he finished with 11 assists and just one turnover in 35 minutes – established the Pistons at that end early. There was nothing flashy about his assists, but all of his passes had a purpose and most of them put the receiver at an advantage to make a positive play of his own.
Joseph not so long ago was a young player himself playing on a veteran-laden San Antonio Spurs team with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili and then, later, a young veteran playing under Casey in Toronto. He knows how a veteran or two sprinkled in among young players can have a settling influence.
“I think it definitely helps being out there was a veteran presence to slow down the game a little bit,” he said. “Sometimes the game goes fast, so just with that veteran presence you can slow it down a bit.”
Ellington’s impact is the magnetic draw he compels from opposition defenses, who are acutely aware of his presence and his every movement. His quick release and his preposterous range pull defenses the extra half-step his way to create passing and cutting lanes for teammates. In 25 minutes, Ellington launched 10 3-point attempts and drained six of them.
“Having a shooter like him out there on the floor forces the guy guarding me to help off on Wayne a lot more,” Stewart said, “which can free me up in different ways.”
Ellington and Joseph led a thoroughly balanced offense in which seven players scored between Frank Jackson’s 11 points – he drew the start next to Joseph with Josh Jackson and Diallo out – and the 18 of the two returning veterans. Stewart had 15 points, seven boards and three blocks. Sekou Doumbouya had another strong game with 14 points and six rebounds. Saddiq Bey scored 13 and hit 3 of 4 from the 3-point arc. And Jahlil Okafor scored a season-high 13 points with five rebounds in 17 minutes.
“When guys step up like Cory and Wayne and a veteran like Jah, that’s leadership,” Casey said. “Those young players, if you’re not careful, they’ll lose hope and lose their confidence. That’s something those veteran guys came in and gave the young players – confidence, hope and the understanding of what it takes to win.”