That the Pistons would struggle to score without Jerami Grant’s reliable 20 points as an everyday presence was readily understood. Less appreciated was what Grant’s absence would mean for their defense.
Well, the Pistons got a glimpse of it in their second game since Grant went down for a minimum of six weeks with a thumb injury. After Kevin Durant set the Little Caesars Arena scoring record in the first game without Grant – he might have helped at least slow Durant’s 51-point roll – the Indiana Pacers bludgeoned the Pistons inside during their 122-113 win Thursday.
The Pacers got to the foul line 28 times and got inside on an endless series of cuts for an unsightly 68 points in the paint when the Pistons weren’t fouling them, often after made baskets. Indiana rolled up 70 first-half points, crested 100 before the third quarter was out and then took a foot off the gas in the fourth quarter when the undersized Pistons couldn’t do enough to rally back.
“We have things in place to cover the cutting. We just weren’t very good at it tonight,” Pistons assistant coach Rex Kalamian said after he pinch-hit for Dwane Casey, who missed the game for personal reasons. “When they did cut, it seemed they were at the rim so quickly with the basketball. We didn’t have enough size tonight at the rim protecting it.”
The Pistons are going to have to deal with the reality of being undersized at least a few more weeks. Kelly Olynyk went down with a knee injury in early November; he’s due to be re-evaluated before the end of the month. His return would certainly help the Pistons at both ends. Their offense at least got a boost this time out from Saddiq Bey, who matched his season high with 28 points. It was a welcome sight for Bey and everyone around him after he’s endured a sophomore shooting slump.
“I just tried to play hard. In my mind, just play hard,” Bey said after registering a double-double with 10 rebounds and five assists to go with his 28 points. “Whatever the defense gives me, I try to play with full force, try to give my team the best possible opportunity for spacing and just try to attack the paint early.”
Bey shot 38 percent from the 3-point arc while being voted first team All-Rookie last season. He’s diversified his game since then, but his 3-point shooting has dipped under 30 percent.
“That’s my dog,” said Frank Jackson, who scored 18 points off the bench, hitting 7 of 11 shots and half his six 3-pointers. “He can shoot it, man. When he’s got it going, he’s got it going. Saddiq is a killer, man. It’s fun to see him go off.”
“That was terrific,” Kalamian, an aide to Casey during all three of his NBA head coaching stops, said of Bey’s breakout. “We’ve all poured a lot of time into Saddiq and talked about how we could help him a little more. My message to him tonight we just be aggressive and if you have an open shot, take it. Twenty-eight points, 10 rebounds, five assists – that’s who Saddiq Bey is. We’re going to get a lot more games like that from him.”
Bey had some help on a night that at least gives the Pistons encouragement others will take advantage of increased opportunities in Grant’s stead. Cade Cunningham continued his rapid evolution into an NBA point guard, finishing with 19 points, six rebounds, four assists, two blocked shots and a steal while cutting his turnovers to two in 34 minutes. Hamidou Diallo scored 12 points and two others, Saben Lee (11 points, five assists) and Trey Lyles (10 points), joined Jackson in double figures off the bench.
But the 13th straight loss resulted like most of the previous 12 – with breakdowns in one or two areas to undermine winning. It’s come on the offensive end more often than not, but this time it was on the defense.
“Communication on defense is huge and sometimes we lacked that a little tonight,” Jackson said. “(Indiana’s cutting) confuses you. That’s what those cuts are designed to do.”
“They hit us with a ton of back cuts,” said Kalamian, who serves as Casey’s defensive coordinator. “They countered what we like to do defensively – help, stunt, crowd the paint – and they back cut the heck out of us tonight. That was a little bit of our downfall early and late in the game.”