Wood’s 30 sparks a Pistons rally, but Utah hangs on to repel another comeback
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
DETROIT – Jordan McRae gave the Pistons signs he was a quick study when he scored 15 points in his debut despite arriving at Little Caesars Arena with barely enough time to introduce himself to new teammates.
He cemented that impression by accurately dissecting the most vexing problem his new team confronts with the season down to its final 18 games.
“We started off slow. We’ve got to stop putting ourselves in holes,” McRae said after the Pistons twice came back – from 22 down in the first half to tie early in the fourth quarter, then from 16 down midway through the quarter to within three points with 42 seconds left – in Saturday’s 111-105 loss to Utah. “Some of these guys are All-Stars, best players in the world. Being down (22) and try to battle back is tough, so we’ve got to stop doing that.”
If the Pistons were in a playoff drive, such habits would be especially troubling. But that’s not where they find themselves. Dwane Casey’s soul isn’t salved by moral victories, either, but the fight he continues to get from a team beset by injuries before being radically remade at mid-season by trade and buyouts is a quality he’ll gladly carry over to a future when they find themselves with a roster better built for winning.
“We did some good things,” he said. “To get back in the game was really good for our guys. We have a lot of fight. Just making the big plays at the right time – that’s the name of the ballgame.”
Nobody did more to get them back in the game than Christian Wood, who set a new career high for the second straight game. Wood scored 29 on Wednesday’s loss to Oklahoma City – another game where the Pistons clawed back from a big deficit only to lose narrowly – and came back with 30 against Utah and the game’s dominant defensive big man, Rudy Gobert.
“My mindset has been attack, take advantage of the opportunity,” Wood said. “With (Derrick Rose) gone, I’ve got to be one of the first options for the team. I think I’ve been doing a good job of that and helping my team score.”
There wasn’t nearly enough balance of outside punch this time. The Pistons were held to 39 first-half points, drawing only four fouls on Utah in the process – a sign of the way Utah took aggression away from the Pistons. They hit only 9 of 30 3-point shots – not enough attempts for Casey’s liking and surely not enough makes.
“We weren’t touching anybody,” Casey said. “We have to be physical. They were handsy and getting into us. We have to turn around and do the same thing. We weren’t aggressive enough in the first quarter.”
About the only thing Wood didn’t accomplish was making a three, going 0 of 5 from the arc. He had seven dunks, showing a nice pick-and-roll chemistry with Bruce Brown – who returned after missing four games with a knee injury – especially during the second-half comeback. Brown finished with five points, five rebounds and seven assists.
“Christian’s going off now,” Brown said. “They’ll probably stay with him now and I’ll have easy layups. It just depends on how they guard, but they were stepping up so I was throwing to him, making the right play.”
McRae has seen nothing but Wood dominance since joining the Pistons, 59 points in two games for his old G League teammate in Delaware.
“He’s playing at an incredible level right now,” McRae said. “He’s upset he didn’t hit a three, but it’s all right. You had 30. You did everything you could for us. Right now he’s in a flow and a rhythm.”
Wood will be a free agent at season’s end and he’s done pretty much everything in his power to make his case for a return. Casey played him all but three minutes of the second half, but Utah made the Pistons pay by outscoring them by nine during their 18-2 fourth-quarter run.
“I really liked the way he got in there and mixed it up in the paint,” Casey said. “We’ve just got to get some other guys in there to help him. He needed a blow. I didn’t want to take him out, but he needed a blow when they went on that run.”