‘This year is about getting those guys ready’ – Stewart gets a taste of crunch time as Pistons fall to Warriors

Midway through the fourth quarter, the Pistons trailing by nine in the season’s fourth game after suffering stinging losses in each of the first three, Dwane Casey sent rookie Isaiah Stewart – 24 hours off of his NBA debut – into the game for Mason Plumlee.

If you want to know if the Pistons are serious about trying to balance winning games with developing their young players, there’s a glimpse into the answer.

Was Plumlee hurt?

“Mason’s fine,” Dwane Casey said after the 116-106 loss to Golden State. “Mason played big minutes last night. The gas tank was probably getting close to empty. And then young fella had a lot of energy, which he always does.”

And then the sentences that speak to Casey’s understanding of his role as the coach of a team with eight players 23 or younger, six of them part of the mix in Tuesday’s game: “He made some mistakes, but this year is about getting those guys ready, developing, teaching – and it’s painful. We’re going through it right now and we’ve just got to learn from those situations and we’ve just got to be ready when they throw it up again.”

Stewart, 19, acquitted himself just fine. He scored six points, grabbed seven rebounds – four of them offensive, giving him nine in 38 minutes to launch his NBA career – blocked two shots, had an assist and didn’t turn it over in 23 minutes. He’s played the last two nights because veteran Jahlil Okafor has been unavailable with a right ankle injury.

“It was great,” Stewart said of playing crunch-time minutes in his second game. “I’m just playing my hardest. I know I’m going to make mistakes, but as long as I’m playing my hardest, giving it my all and doing everything I can to help my teammates and coaches win the game, that’s all that matters.”

Plumlee had played 25 minutes and probably could have gone the distance, but he’d played more than 33 minutes the night before and there are 68 games left. The temptation had to be there for Casey, three years removed from a Coach of the Year season with a team that set a Toronto franchise record for wins, especially when he didn’t have Okafor available.

But he not only sent Stewart in at a critical juncture of the game, he let him finish it out.

“He was great,” said Jerami Grant, who rallied from a 1 of 9 shooting start to lead the Pistons with 27 points for the second consecutive night. “He kept us in the game, getting a lot of offensive rebounds and fighting them on the glass. He gave us an extra boost. He’s been great for us the last couple of games. Looking forward to seeing him on the court more.”

The Pistons, a night after playing without Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose, lost Griffin at halftime to concussion protocol – he took an inadvertent but hard shot to the face in the second quarter from Golden State rookie James Wiseman – and the first of their three first-round picks, Killian Hayes, a few minutes into the third quarter with a sprained ankle.

And it was those first six minutes of the third quarter when Golden State outscored the Pistons 17-5 that turned the tables of a game the Pistons led by 12 in the first half, by seven when Griffin went to the bench and by three at the break despite the fact they shot just 30 percent. Stewart’s offense rebounding was a big part of the first-half lead – as was the scoring of the third first-round pick, Saddiq Bey, who put up all 11 of his points before halftime – as was the defense of Hayes on Curry.

Curry finished with 31 to lead the Warriors, but did precious little damage against Hayes.

“I thought he had a lot of energy the first half,” Casey said of Hayes. “Somehow he tweaked his ankle, but he stayed connected with him. We had a scheme we were trying to use on him any time he was within the 3-point line. Killian did an excellent job with that.”

Casey stayed with Josh Jackson as the starter for the second straight night after he cashed in with 27 points in Monday’s loss at Atlanta and Jackson had another strong game even though he was 0 of 5 from the 3-point arc. Jackson finished with 17 points and six rebounds and continues to be a force in transition and attacking the rim while giving the Pistons the size, versatility and length on the perimeter they’ve lacked in recent seasons.

“Isaiah comes in and just kicks butts and takes names later. Love the way he plays,” Casey said. “Josh Jackson is playing at a high level and Jerami at the four is playing at a high level. Derrick bounced back tonight and got his rhythm. Some good things but close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.”

“Completely new group of guys coming together,” Grant said, “so it’s going to take some time for us to get going. We’re right there at the end of the game. We’re growing as a team. We’ve just got to finish out the games.”

As long as Casey sees no one hanging his head – or taking his foot off the gas – he’ll roll with the mix of veterans and young players and live with the results.

“We had a great conversation with Derrick. He’s all in,” Casey said after the game. “Everybody in that locker room is all in. Blake can’t catch a break, but everybody’s all in. We’ve just got to stay together through tough times, continue to build, get a togetherness and chemistry as we go out and compete. One thing is non-negotiable is playing hard – and we are doing that.”