Youth served as Pistons punch first, last and hardest in rout at OKC
Zach Beeker (NBAE/Getty)
Troy Weaver and the man he served as second lieutenant in Oklahoma City for more than a decade, Sam Presti, are both overseeing rosters in transition for franchises with loftier endgames than sneaking into the playoffs’ back door. They got to measure their efforts against each other for the first time on Monday and, for what it’s worth, score one for Weaver and the Pistons.
Playing no starter older than Jerami Grant (27) and no player older than Cory Joseph (29), the Pistons started fast and finished strong to blast the Thunder, 132-108, to open a five-game Western Conference road trip. It came on the heels of the season’s worst loss, a 44-point decision against the Knicks on Saturday, and that had something to do with a start that saw the Pistons use a 17-0 run to take an 18-point lead midway through the first quarter that was never seriously threatened.
And it says something – something pretty loud, actually – about the direction the Pistons are headed that it was a 19-year-old rookie who had a profound impact on those first six minutes that pretty much decided the game.
“It was the way he came out and commanded the paint, the way he screened, the way he boxed out, the physicality you’ve got to have,” Dwane Casey said of Isaiah Stewart, who set a career high with four blocked shots – all in those opening six minutes. “It kind of set the tone for the rest of the game.”
“It rubbed me the wrong way,” Stewart said of Saturday’s game, still fresh in mind for his third career start as the Pistons rested veterans Mason Plumlee and Wayne Ellington on the advice of the team’s medical staff. “It rubbed everybody the wrong way. We wanted to come out this game from the jump with that intensity on defense and play the right way.”
In fact, all four Pistons rookies Weaver drafted last November have serious defensive DNA in their makeup. It’s unusual for rookies, so frequently worried more about finding their niche on the offensive end, to be something other than liabilities at the defensive end. But all four – Stewart, Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey and Saben Lee – are already at least solid at that end with the physical and mental makeup to evolve into a ferocious collective force.
“All the rookies are physical, strong kids and have confidence in their bodies,” Casey said. “They don’t mind contact on the defensive end. And Sekou (Doumbouya). Sekou’s got a big, strong body. That’s why they can go in and bang and not be afraid of contact. A lot of times as young kids, you’re afraid of that man coming across the lane. These guys enjoy physicality.”
Hayes, in his second game back after missing three months with a hip injury, showed the 94-foot impact he can have, finishing with nine points, seven assists, three rebounds, four steals and two blocked shots in 25 minutes. He scored in a variety of ways – a 3-pointer, in mid-range after finding space coming off screens, on a sweeping half-hook to finish a move from right to left across the lane – and found open teammates, his most spectacular assist a pinpoint lob to skywalking Hamidou Diallo in traffic.
“Killian can pass the basketball,” Diallo said after contributing 11 points, eight rebounds and four assists against the team that traded him less than a month ago to the Pistons. “I’m going to leave it at that. Killian can pass that ball.”
“I’ve played with a lot of point guards this year,” Stewart said about the other 19-year-old on the roster. “To me, his feel for the game is just different. It’s natural. He doesn’t try to force any passes. He sees the whole floor and makes the right read. His feel for the game is totally different.”
Bey finished with 10 points and hit a 3-pointer to tie Brandon Knight for the Pistons rookie record with 105 triples, Bey doing it in 17 fewer games than Knight’s 66 in the 2011-12 season. Bey was one of seven Pistons in double figures with three others finishing with nine points. Lee started and finished with eight points, six assists and four rebounds in 16 minutes as Casey tries to find playing time for his trove of young perimeter players.
“I’ve been off the past couple of games, but it’s a team effort,” Bey said. “Everybody, from the staff, the coaches, the players – it was good to come out and get another win. It’s an honor.”
Doumbouya, returning after bouts with a thumb injury and migraine headaches that cost him the past four games, contributed 14 points, three rebounds and two assists in 23 minutes. Casey saw Doumbouya contributing on the defensive end, too.
“He came in with a sense of purpose as far as defense was concerned,” Casey said. “He moved his feet, didn’t play with his hands, did an excellent job and took what the defense gave him on the offensive end. Really happy with him. It’s easy in this league to hang your head, but you’ve got to take advantage of opportunity and Sekou did that tonight.”
They all did. Of their 132 points, 102 were scored by players 24 or younger with Grant’s 21 leading them.
“It was important that we came out there and we punched first tonight,” Diallo said. “The last game, we got punched in the mouth and we didn’t respond. That’s not the team we are. That’s not the type of people we are.”