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22 turnovers spoil a spirited Pistons comeback

There was no quibbling with their intent and that’s at least half the battle for Dwane Casey’s Pistons at this point on their timeline. But the other side of the coin from intent is execution and … well, Casey had a quibble with that. Twenty-two of them, in fact.

“That’s the game,” Casey lamented after the Pistons punctuated an eventful four-game road trip by seeing a 16-point comeback undermined by 22 turnovers, three critical ones coming in the last 42 seconds. “They’re a very good team – taking nothing away from the Nuggets. But we shot ourselves in the foot.”

The road trip ended with a 1-3 record, but after getting run over by Golden State to open it the Pistons could take away plenty of encouragement with the last three outings. First they closed at Sacramento with a 10-0 run for a comeback win and then they played two of the West’s contenders, Utah and Denver, into the final minutes with Sunday’s 117-111 loss within their grasp.

Cory Joseph hit two paint jumpers to tie the game at 109 and 111 in the final two minutes and the Pistons got a stop after the second, giving them a chance to take the lead. That’s when the first of their final three turnovers occurred, Joseph having the ball poked away from behind by Will Barton. Nikola Jokic – reigning MVP who had an MVP-like 34-point, nine-rebound, eight-assist stat line – hit two free throws to put Denver ahead with 40 seconds left.

“Nobody’s going out there trying to turn over the ball,” Joseph said. “We’re all trying to make the right play. For myself, down the stretch, Will got his hand on the ball when I was playing pick and roll with Isaiah. I wish I could go back and play that play again.”

And then came the second critical Pistons turnover when Saddiq Bey, who’d hit consecutive huge triples a few possessions earlier, stepped out of bounds upon receiving a pass that might have seen him launch another wing triple. The third turnover, a moving screen called on Joseph, wiped out a Pistons 3-pointer that would’ve pulled them within a point in the closing seconds.

“I definitely feel like we gave it away,” said Isaiah Stewart, a perfect 8 of 8 in an 18-point performance. “I think it was 28 points off our 22 turnovers. We were shooting ourselves in the foot. We take away some of those turnovers, it puts us in a whole different position.”

The Pistons were again missing Stewart’s tag team partner at center, Kelly Olynyk, who two games after returning from a 33-game injury absence – and playing a central role in Wednesday’s comeback win at Sacramento – was out due to entering NBA health and safety protocols. Stewart helped the Pistons get off to a good start – up 30-29 after a quarter, tied at 60 at halftime – but matching Jokic bucket for bucket in the early going. Three of Stewart’s eight baskets were jump shots, one of them a triple. After flashing a promising perimeter shooting touch as a rookie, Stewart hasn’t had the same success this season. He shot them without hesitation at Denver, though.

“Just recognizing it and knowing that shot helps our offense,” Stewart said. “Pretty much starting to get back to muscle memory.”

“That’s what he’s got to do,” Casey said. “He had a handful, he and Trey (Lyles) going against Jokic. Isaiah’s got the license to shoot that jump shot. He’s open – they drop back – that’s a great shot for him.”

Three other Pistons – Joseph, Lyles and Cade Cunningham – matched Stewart’s 18 points. The Pistons shot 56 percent, battle Denver to a draw on the glass despite missing Olynyk and Jerami Grant’s size and hit 11 of 29 from the 3-point line. There was a lot to like – not least the resolve exhibited after Denver’s 17-7 run to close the third quarter stretched its lead to 16. Without Olynyk, Casey closed with a three-guard lineup of Joseph, Cunningham and Killian Hayes, who returned and played a solid 24 minutes.

“It gives us multiple ballhandlers, multiple decision makers,” Joseph said. “I think we could be very effective. Kill’s defense is really elite. It gives us a different dynamic, for sure.”

But the 22 turnovers were a gut punch.

“We’re getting to the point, going into the end of the year and next year, where close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades,” Casey said. “It’s things we can control. Last 10 games we were fourth in the league in turnovers, 12 a game, and then we had this tonight. That’s what was more disappointing.”