The Alamo is held dear by Texans for the fight the grossly undermanned volunteer forces put up through a 13-day siege by the Mexican army in 1836. Less fondly recalled is the ultimate result. The side with the overwhelming numbers advantage won out. So it was on Sunday a few miles away at AT&T Center when the Pistons – without 11 players, eight of them due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols – were overrun by the San Antonio Spurs.
“Our mindset was it didn’t matter,” rookie Luka Garza said after the 144-109 loss of the sobering reality that confronted the Pistons, who had only one of their usual starters, Saddiq Bey, in uniform. “We had enough to go out and compete. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to do that consistently throughout the game. We had stretches that were good, but there were too many mistakes throughout the game.”
The Pistons were shorthanded their last time out in Miami, missing seven players, but pushed the Heat to the final seconds before losing by three. Two of the three new additions to the COVID list, Trey Lyles and Cory Joseph, combined for 49 points in that loss at Miami.
Instead of filling minutes with accomplished NBA veterans like Lyles and Joseph, the Pistons this time had to call on four players who last week were playing for the Motor City Cruise. One of them, Derrick Walton Jr. was the only point guard available with Killian Hayes, Cade Cunningham, Saben Lee and Joseph all sidelined. Of their nine players available, only four are playing on standard NBA contracts. A fifth, Jamorko Pickett, is playing the season on a two-way contract. They ended the game with seven players still standing after both Garza and Cheick Diallo fouled out.
The only way the Pistons were going to test San Antonio was if the Spurs cooperated and that’s never likely against a Gregg Popovich-coached team. San Antonio, to its credit, played forcefully from the opening tip to keep the thrown-together Pistons from the strong start they’d need to inspire the belief they could win under such extreme adversity. San Antonio ran the floor, attacked the paint where the Pistons were not only shorthanded but undersized and inexperienced, and knocked down the open 3-point shots that frequently resulted from penetration scrambling perimeter defense.
“It’s hard to play well every night, but it’s easy to play hard every night and that’s what we should do,” Pistons assistant coach Rex Kalamian said after again pinch-hitting for Dwane Casey, who missed his fourth game over the past two weeks for personal reasons unrelated to COVID-19. “We have a lot of guys touching the floor for NBA minutes for the first time in a long time and I think we played hard. We didn’t play necessarily smart, so much. That was kind of our problem. We didn’t share the ball enough in the first half.”
Kalamian tried to manipulate a merged roster of Pistons and Cruise players. Hamidou Diallo led their scoring with 28 points and Bey added 23. Frank Jackson, playing over an ankle injury, scored 17. Of the nine players available, only four – Bey, Jackson, Diallo and Garza – are on standard NBA contracts. A fifth, Jamorko Pickett, who went scoreless and missed all seven of his shots, is on a two-way deal.
“I’m in a unique position. I played with most of these guys (during his G League stints),” Garza said. “I know these guys really well. For me, I was at an advantage because I knew how these guys played. It’s always tough being thrown into a group of guys you’re not used to playing with, but that’s no excuse for us tonight. We scored the ball. We put up 110 points. That’s a lot of points. Our problems were on the other end, obviously, giving up an astounding number.”
Garza scored 20 points but fouled out in 20 minutes, his banishment in the fourth quarter causing confusion when he and the Pistons were of the belief he had another foul coming. Garza picked up three in 10 first-half minutes and then committed his fourth eight seconds into the third quarter and was angry with himself for allowing veteran Jakob Poeltl to bait him into that call 20 feet from the basket.
“It’s tough when you get an early couple,” he said. “It takes away from your aggressiveness, especially when there’s a lot of guys attacking the rim. It made it tough for me to be able to protect the rim like I can. I know I’m not a world-beater, but I know I can do better than I did tonight.”
“Luke always plays so hard and makes a lot of things happen because he plays so hard,” Kalamian said. “He runs the floor, he sprints into screens. He’s a reliable 3-point shooter, 2 for 5 tonight. We’ll go back and look where the sixth foul came in. I wish he would have had more minute, but we love Luka’s energy and spirit.”
The Pistons get two days off before hosting the Knicks on Wednesday and hope they get some reinforcements by then.
“We had limited subs to go to,” Kalamian said of Sunday’s dilemma. “We were trying to just move the pieces around and try to get a combination that would work for us. Our overall engagement in the first half wasn’t nearly where it should have been, as we were in the second half. Much more engaged.”