‘We’ve got a bright future’ – Against long odds, the ‘Core Four’ battles to the buzzer as Pistons lose to Bulls

If part of being a rookie is learning how to wear blinders and play on through aches, pains, fatigue and misfortune, then the young Pistons got themselves quite an education in the first full week of May.

And on Mother’s Day, they passed with flying colors – and did their mothers proud.

The four rookies general manager Troy Weaver dubbed the “Core Four” after maneuvering to pick up three extra picks in a draft that began with only one in his possession had their finest collective night of a thoroughly impressive first season. They combined for 73 points, 22 rebounds and 19 assists, established a slew of personal bests and kept the Pistons from being run out of the building on a night they were lacking so much of their veteran core and scoring punch.

“We’ve got a great future,” Killian Hayes said after Chicago, fortified by the return last week of stars Zach LaVine and Nic Vucevic, posted a 108-96 win. “We have a fun team. We love playing with each other. We love sharing the ball. We love seeing each other succeed. I love my teammates. We’ve got a bright future.”

Sunday marked their fifth game in seven nights, most of them played shorthanded, a condition which reached its apex – or perhaps its nadir – in the season’s 69th game. The Pistons began the night with eight players unavailable and lost a ninth, Frank Jackson, to a sprained ankle before the first quarter was out.

That left the four rookies to more or less lead the charge and that, they did.

Hayes established career highs in points (21), rebounds (seven) and minutes (38) while adding eight assists to give him 12 straight games with five or more assists. Only Isiah Thomas, with a 17-game streak, has a longer one among Pistons rookies. Hayes’ 12th straight moved him into a tie with Joe Dumars for second.

Saddiq Bey also established a career high in minutes (41) while Isaiah Stewart (32) and Saben Lee (32) came up one minute short of matching their highs. Stewart also took a high of seven 3-point attempts, making three, as his transformation into a legitimate inside-outside threat continued apace. Lee matched his high of seven assists. Bey’s five 3-pointers (in 10 attempts) weren’t a season high, but did extend his NBA rookie record to 12 games with at least five triples made. He also expanded his lead over Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards to five for most 3-pointers for an NBA rookie this season with 164.

All in all, quite a night for the kids.

The fact they were doing it under such adverse conditions – the fifth game of the week and playing all but the first eight minutes of the game with only eight available players – and finished with such a flourish made it all the more impressive.

Hayes scored 12 fourth-quarter points, hitting a season-best three 3-pointers in six tries, and added four of his eight assists. Bey scored eight points in the fourth quarter, hitting 2 of 3 from the 3-point line. Stewart and Lee were both a team-best plus-five in the quarter.

“It’s another area of growth, of toughness,” Dwane Casey said of the strong finish and emphatic nights for the rookies. “If you win with toughness in this league, we’d have won quite a few games. Those guys toughed it out – mentally, physically – and it says a lot about their character, who they are as people.”

“It kind of shows what this young core is about,” Lee said. “Just going out there and competing regardless of the circumstances and leaving it all out there on the floor. That’s our character and how we want to play.”

There were a few other notable wrinkles to the game. Driven largely by necessity, the two rookie point guards spent much of the night playing in tandem.

“I love it,” Lee said of playing alongside Hayes. “If I get it, I can push; if he gets it, he can push. Get in transition and I feel like it’s a lot more upbeat when both of us are out there and can play off of each other.”

The other notable development was Stewart, now that scouting reports show him as a willing and able 3-point shooter, putting the ball on the floor a few times against closeouts, one time scoring at the rim with a spinning left-handed layup.

“I thought tonight he did a great job of mixing it up when they were running at him, putting it on the floor,” Casey said. “They’re not going to let him stand out there and shoot it, so what’s plan B? Tonight he made excellent plays to attack the basket.”

For Lee, it was a career night in one very important respect: On Mother’s Day, his mother, Natalie, got to see her son play in person as an NBA player for the first time.

“That was everything,” he beamed. “Being able to see my mom up there in the stands … this was the first one she could come to. It definitely was a good day, being on Mother’s Day.”

And the way it ended, it seems like there will be plenty of good days around the corner.

“What we’re going through is going to make us tougher, make us better,” Casey said. “If we bring this same type of intensity, toughness, each and every night, then good things will happen.”