Three quick observations from Friday night’s 108-102 loss to the Phoenix Suns at Footprint Center
QUITE THE FIGHT – The Pistons won as big underdogs at Denver and Utah on a back to back leading to Thanksgiving, but the odds against taking their winning streak to three were compounded greatly by becoming even more shorthanded. Those wins at Denver and Utah came without Cade Cunningham, Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey. Jaden Ivey (right knee soreness) and Cory Joseph (non-COVID illness) made it four missing starters and fully half their preferred 10-man rotation unavailable to Dwane Casey against the team atop the Western Conference standings. But they somehow led by a point at halftime and were still tied at 73 with five minutes left in the third quarter before the Suns hit them with an 8-0 run. Phoenix started 1 of 15 from three, then hit 5 of 6 during their third-quarter surge. It looked like the Suns were about to pull away, leading by seven with nine minutes to play, but a 10-2 Pistons run brought them within a point with five minutes to play. They had chances to tie or take the lead in the final three minutes, but couldn’t get shots to fall at critical junctures and Phoenix got out with the win. With 24 seconds to play, the last Pistons starter left standing, Bojan Bogdanovic, was barely standing after grasping at his right knee after a collision with Torey Craig that didn’t earn him a call and wound up as a layup for Phoenix that allowed the Suns to stretch their lead to six instead of the Pistons having a chance to cut into a four-point deficit. Bogdanovic led five players in double figures with 19 points. The Pistons wrapped up their 12-day, six-game road trip with a 2-4 record and return home on Sunday. They’ll have to hope they have a few more healthy bodies by then.
THE BURKS EFFECT – Dwane Casey knew how much Alec Burks would mean to his bench, which is why it stung so much when Burks’ return didn’t come until the season’s 13th game as he recovered from April ankle surgery. Over the 12 games without Burks, the Pistons ranked 29th in bench scoring. But since Burks returned, they went from 25.1 points a game off the bench to 44.9 over the eight games going into Friday, third in the NBA in that span. Burks was a big part of the Pistons hanging in the game as long as they did, scoring 10 points in eight first-half minutes. He might have worn down some in the second half as Burks missed his first five shots after halftime but still finished with 17 points, hitting 7 of 8 at the foul line. The Pistons had been reluctant to play Burks in back to backs coming off his injury, but needed to ride him in the two wins at Denver and Utah. Burks was at the heart of a bench that averaged 54.3 points a game over the past four games. Rookie Jalen Duren, also a big part of the thriving bench, had a rough start at Phoenix, picking up three fouls that limited him to seven first-half minutes. Duren finished with four points, five rebounds and two assists in 15 minutes. The Pistons used Braxton Key and Nerlens Noel for two minutes apiece in the first half to help absorb some minutes while Duren sat.
RECLAMATION SUCCESS – Two players who’ve been instrumental in the Pistons turnaround, Killian Hayes and Kevin Knox, weren’t on anyone’s radar to be players contributing to winning basketball just a few weeks ago. After a nightmarish start to his third season, Hayes has looked a markedly different player since rejoining the starting lineup when Cade Cunningham first left the lineup two weeks ago with left shin soreness. Hayes flirted with a triple-double, finishing with 17 points, eight rebounds and nine assists in 38 minutes. And he did that while playing with a left calf injury that kept him out of the second half at Utah on Wednesday and had him listed questionable until just before tipoff. Over the last nine games entering Friday, Hayes had averaged 9.1 points and 5.3 assists and been a way more efficient scorer than at any point in his first three seasons, shooting 44 percent from the 3-point line and developing a potent mid-range pull-up. Knox, signed to a modest two-year deal as a free agent after losing his way in year four with the Knicks and getting buried in Atlanta, has been a revelation on the road trip. He’d averaged 16.3 points over the past three games coming into Friday’s match, scoring 21 points and hitting 6 of 8 threes in the win at Utah. The Suns obviously got the scouting report, running Knox off the 3-point line and limiting him to only three attempts in 27 minutes. He finished with seven points, four rebounds, an assist, two blocks and a steal.