Well-connected bench sparks Pistons to win over Spurs – ‘They know how to play’

With no Cade Cunningham or Killian Hayes, Dwane Casey opted to keep his second unit intact and patch together a starting lineup for the preseason opener. And that bench, anchored by three Canadian national team veterans and energized by two hyperathletic wings, was the story of the 115-105 win over San Antonio to open the Pistons preseason.

“They’re veteran players. They know how to play,” Casey said of his bench, comprised of the returning Cory Joseph along with Canadian contemporaries Kelly Olynyk and Trey Lyles plus Josh Jackson and Hamidou Diallo. “They have a rhythm of being together for so long, Cory and Kelly. Going into training camp, we knew that. Just was impressed the way they came in and gave us IQ, experience and the know-how.”

Jackson scored 16 points, Olynyk and Joseph had matching lines of 14 points and six assists and Lyles and Diallo added nine points apiece. You can’t read much into minutes distribution in a preseason opener, but given the youth of the starting lineup and the makeup of the roster as a whole don’t be surprised if the Pistons bench winds up outproducing the starters more than occasionally.

“That unit has a lot of veterans and they do a great job in practices,” Saddiq Bey said. “We battle against each other every day. I think everybody has a good feel for each other and that’s going to be key for us this season.”

The bench shot a collective 59 percent and hit 7 of the 12 Pistons 3-pointers for the night. Lyles hit 3 of 4 triples to make a strong case to win the job as backup to Jerami Grant, who led the Pistons with 19 points in less than 24 minutes and ended his night with a firm hug from Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who led the United States Olympic team that included Grant to a gold medal in Tokyo this summer.

Bey and Grant helped the Pistons get off to a smashing start, leading 39-22 after a quarter. Bey finished with 13 points, five rebounds and three assists and showed the burgeoning diversity in his game he first put on display in Summer League. After taking two-thirds of his shots from the 3-point line as a rookie, Bey did most of his damage inside the arc – and inside the paint, even – in this one, making 1 of 4 triples but 4 of 7 inside the 3-point line.

Without Cunningham and Hayes, both out with minor ankle sprains, Casey elected to start Saben Lee and Rodney McGruder in the backcourt in order to keep at least one unit intact. The starting lineup is going to be frightfully young – Cunningham, Hayes and Isaiah Stewart will all play the full season as 20-year-olds, Bey at 22 – so Casey is counting on them to play with boundless energy and then turn things over to a cohesive second unit with Joseph at the controls.

“We’re all more experienced in this league,” Joseph said. “We’ve been playing together for a while and obviously have a lot of experience playing with Kelly and Trey from Team Canada in the summertime all the time. It’s easier to click, for sure.”

Frank Jackson, who had a career breakthrough with the Pistons over the final six weeks of 2020-21, will be in the mix for playing time with that second unit, as well. But he, like Hayes and Cunningham, missed the opener with a sprained ankle. Jackson was a 40 percent 3-point shooter last season but also showed the ability to attack the rim.

There is some concern whether Diallo and Josh Jackson playing together give the bench unit enough 3-point shooting, but Olynyk and Lyles can ease those concerns.

“Not only that, just the basketball experience and IQ,” they provide, Casey said. “No disrespect to Isaiah and Saddiq; they’re more experienced than those guys. That’s just the difference in understanding where spacing is going to be, what’s a good shot, how to space to get a good three – all those things, they bring to the table. It was really good to see what that second unit did.”

Olynyk, Lyles and Joseph were central to one dazzling second-half possession in which they tic-tac-toed the ball a la the Red Wings Russian Five playing keep-away with the puck a generation ago, culminating with Joseph splitting the defense and finding Lyles for a corner three. On another, Joseph instinctively sensed Olynyk as a trailing big man for an easy transition basket.

“I feel like we have experience in that second unit,” Joseph said. “We can use that to our advantage. We have guys that have a high IQ on both units, but that second unit, their games complement each other well. I’m very excited about it. It’s just one game, but so far I’m very excited.”