A tough loss in L.A.: ‘When you play the Pistons, you’re going to have to come to play’
Adam Pantozzi (NBAE via Getty Images)
If the only clue you were given nearing the midway point of the third quarter about how the game was going was that the Clippers were shooting 72 percent, how much would you have guessed the Pistons deficit would be?
Twenty points? Thirty?
Fair guess. Instead, their deficit was minus-10, which is the double negative way of saying they were actually leading by 10 points at that juncture, an indication – against all odds – of just how well, and how hard, they were playing.
In fact, even if you hadn’t known the Clippers were shooting 72 percent 30 minutes into the game, you might have expected the Pistons to be hopelessly behind given the circumstances they faced: second game of a back to back, against one of the NBA title favorites and a team with a 10-2 record in its last 12, the end of a weeklong road trip with five games crammed into seven nights, playing without leading scorer Jerami Grant.
But that’s the story of the 2020-21 Pistons, just as general manager Troy Weaver and Dwane Casey promised: If you want a night off, don’t play the Pistons.
“Just having that competitive spirit. I think every guy on this team is a winner at heart,” Josh Jackson said after going toe to toe with All-NBA fixture Paul George and scoring 26 points to lead the Pistons in what became a 131-124 loss. “You see our record, but teams coming in, they know no matter who’s out, when you play the Pistons you’re going to have to come to play.”
The Clippers were without their other superstar, Kawhi Leonard, but the Pistons were missing leading scorer Jerami Grant for a third straight game with knee soreness. Even without them, the battle of the forwards was worth the full price of admission: George (32 points) and ex-Piston Marcus Morris (33) combined for 65 points for the Clippers; Jackson and rookie Saddiq Bey (25) combined for 51 for the Pistons.
It was a stunning display of offense for the Pistons given the setting and the quality of the opponent, the Clippers ranking in the top 10 at both ends in the NBA. But the fact the Pistons couldn’t build a comfortable lead despite their exemplary ball movement (33 assists on 46 baskets), domination in points off turnovers (28-16) and 3-point marksmanship (13 of 26 after three quarters) made everyone, well, uncomfortable.
“That’s what we said every timeout,” Casey said. “We said, ‘The first team that plays defense is going to win.’ They have the firepower, the 3-point shooting, that it’s just tough to sustain getting tough twos vs. their threes. They’re a great shooting team. That’s what they do. That’s why you’re nervous. We didn’t get consistent stops, especially in the fourth quarter.”
The Pistons went 0 of 4 from the arc in the fourth quarter until Wayne Ellington (5 of 7 from three) and Bey (5 of 8) drained a pair in the final 20 seconds with the Pistons in frantic catch-up mode. Cory Joseph assisted on both, capping an 18-point, 13-assist night for the recent trade acquisition.
The Clippers, though, went 6 of 9 from three in the fourth quarter. Morris hit 6 of 8 and George 5 of 7 for the game from distance.
All five Pistons starters scored in double figures and Frank Jackson, solidifying his status as part of the franchise’s future core, scored 16 off the bench, making it 10 times in 16 games he’s scored in double figures since becoming a rotation staple.
“He helps the spacing because they don’t leave him,” Casey said. “When he’s on the floor, they stay crowded to him so there’s driving alleys even if he’s not making shots. He’s a big part of our future. Love the way Frank is playing. Defensively, he doesn’t back down. They tried to get him switched on to Paul George two or three times and he just didn’t back down.”
Well, of course not. There’s no backing down in this team, not this season, not when a competitive edge was put atop the list of necessary qualities in prospective Pistons.
“We’re not trying to get perfect people, but we want to get the right-attitude guys,” Casey said. “The competitiveness has to be in their DNA. That has to be automatic in their blood to be a Piston.”