‘We were just having fun out there’ – Pistons rookies gang up to lead a win over OKC

Isaiah Stewart
Isaiah Stewart dominated the boards, grabbing 21 rebounds to go with 15 points as a Pistons starting lineup that averaged 21 years 2 months beat Oklahoma City
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

Youth was served, though many of them could only be served soft drinks. The Pistons trotted out what almost certainly was the youngest starting five in franchise history – and were outdone in youth by their opponent, Oklahoma City.

Three Pistons starters – rookies Killian Hayes and Isaiah Stewart and second-year teammate Sekou Doumbouya – have yet to take a legal sip of alcohol in Michigan. The Thunder had two such starters, and, in fact, fielded a lineup slightly younger than Detroit’s, averaging 21 years 1 month to Detroit’s 21 years 2 months.

“Those guys, seeing that chemistry continue to build with Kill, Saddiq (Bey), Josh (Jackson), Sekou … I guess you could say that young core,” Stewart said after dominating inside in the 110-104 win over the Thunder. “That’s what we are. Just trying to build that chemistry between us.”

Their chemistry combusted into some spectacular moments and frothy stats. Stewart grabbed 21 rebounds to go with 15 points, three assists and two blocks. Hayes picked up seven assists, five steals and a block to go with his nine points. And Bey, after a scoreless first quarter, scored 18 points despite a cold night from the 3-point arc.

Stewart set the tone early, muscling 7-foot-2 Moses Brown mercilessly to establish the physicality Dwane Casey has been pleading for with his team. Stewart grabbed more offensive rebounds, nine, than anyone else on either team had total rebounds.

“Isaiah played super in all the little things – spacing, his screens,” Casey said. “A lot of his moving screens are not his fault. The guards have to wait for him because he’s one of the best screeners in the league. Really proud of the way he played and competed. He’s going against two guys in there. Every team is committing two people to sandwich him on the boards and he’s doing a heck of a job to fight that. It’s not easy.”

“Tonight was all about physicality and playing hard,” Stewart, 19, said. “Just trying to be great at both ends of the floor. I try to get better at everything.”

Every game since his return from a three-month injury absence came two weeks ago, Hayes, also 19, shows flashes of his otherworldly vision and passing ability. He entered a candidate for pass of the year into the competition in the second half, a bounce pass – with some crazy English on it – from beyond half-court that led Bey perfectly to the rim for a layup. Casey reached into the Hall of Fame for a comparison that should send chills up the collective spine of Pistons fans.

“The only other person I’ve seen make that pass was Jason Kidd,” Casey said. “A bowling ball and put spin on it – that was a hell of a pass. Those are the things he can do.”

Casey talks to his precocious rookie about picking his spots to try those types of passes, but Hayes goes on instinct. If the pass is there, it’s out of his hand.

“That’s why I threw it. I saw the opening, put a little spin on it. (Bey) made the play and got the bucket,” Hayes said. “I’m not gambling. If I see a pass I can make, I’ll make it. I don’t go with a mindset of it might not go through. If I pass it, I’m thinking it’s going to be on target.”

Bey, who came into the game with a rookie-leading 124 3-pointers made, launched 12 but made only two against Oklahoma City. Inside the arc, Bey hit 6 of 8 shots, using his strength and footwork to power for position, an element of his game that has grown by leaps and bounds since December.

“You’re going to have nights like that,” Casey said. “A lot of those shots he missed, we’ll take ’em. They were the right shots. Like I tell guys all the time, if you miss 15 if you’re a 3-point shooter, keep shooting. Wyatt Earp didn’t put his gun back in the holster until it was out of bullets. He’s a very good shooter in my book.”

Josh Jackson – who turned 24 two months ago, making him the oldest starter for either team – led the Pistons with 29 points after a rough start and was involved in the game’s pivotal play.

With 3:10 to play and the Pistons’ 11-point lead whittled to three, Jackson was whistled for a charging call to send him to the sidelines with his sixth foul – or would have, if the call had stood. But Casey challenged and had it overturned. Jackson’s two free throws made it a five-point lead that held up. Casey said he saw it on the video board at mid-court and in real time and felt it was worth the challenge.

“I felt like I saw it. Guy was sliding and I’m at the other end. I wasn’t 100 percent, but my layman’s eye, I thought he was sliding. It was big. It kept Josh in the game.”

Stewart and the three first-rounders did the rest, settling in after a shaky start and giving a glimpse of what they all hope will be many celebratory nights in their future.

“It was exciting,” Hayes said. “I feel like we started off a little slow because we were all excited, but as the game went on we got more and more comfortable. We were just having fun out there.”

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