There’s a passing gear teams with resumes as thin as the one the Pistons take to work every night rarely find. In the span of 48 hours, against a pair of opponents that will be disappointed with anything other than a season that extends into June, Dwane Casey’s team saw firsthand the power that gear encompasses.
After being outscored 37-17 in Sunday’s fourth quarter by the Lakers, who overcame a 17-point deficit, the Pistons were outscored 33-16 by Miami in the fourth quarter of Tuesday’s 100-92 loss after leading by 12 late in the third quarter.
“We have to be positive,” Casey said of guiding a young team – and one playing without two starters, 20-year-olds Isaiah Stewart and Killian Hayes, plus bench anchor Kelly Olynyk – through the minefield of NBA fourth quarters against championship-pedigree opponents. “Everybody wants the gold trophy, as my daughter calls it, but it takes time.”
For 36 minutes against the NBA’s No. 4 offense, the Pistons played superbly. They held Miami to 67 points, committed just nine turnovers and got the type of ball movement and activity on offense a team going through the type of shooting woes they’ve endured this season needs. But when Miami extended their defense in the fourth quarter and went to a zone after falling back in the half court, it was lights out. Scoring dried up and the defense got back on its heels.
The nine-point lead was erased in less than four minutes. Tyler Herro scored 14 of his 31 points in the fourth quarter to nearly match the Pistons total, 16 and his two triples 18 seconds apart early in the quarter to whittle a nine-point deficit to three lit the fuse. The Pistons shot 6 of 20 in the quarter with six turnovers and didn’t make a three in seven attempts. And over their first 12 possessions, the Pistons mustered four points on one basket and two free throws, one of them on a technical for illegal defense.
“It was tough. Last three games, the fourth quarters have been tough on us,” rookie Luka Garza said after making his first NBA start and coming out of it with a nasty battle scar across his left cheek. “We’ve played really well for the first three quarters. Tonight, we had a little trouble with the zone and couldn’t figure out a way to score.”
Garza drew the start with Stewart suspended for two games and Olynyk out for at least another month with a knee injury. That wasn’t the way it was supposed to go for the 52nd pick in July’s draft who earned a two-way contract with a strong Summer League showing and had that converted to a standard deal prior to training camp when the Pistons traded veteran Jahlil Okafor. He finished with seven points, three rebounds and two assists in 17 minutes, dodging foul trouble for much of the night.
“I thought Luka did a good job,” Casey said. “He gave us some size, some rebounding, some toughness in the paint. We’re down a big man. Don’t like playing Jerami (Grant) there, but it gives us some speed, some quickness, some scoring.”
The Pistons will have to survive another game with some combination of Garza, Trey Lyles and Grant patching together the middle – and it comes in a back to back against the reigning NBA champions, Milwaukee.
“Especially with a back to back, you’ve got to be able to flush things quickly,” Garza said. “You’ve got to be able to go on to the next play, good or bad, whether you play well or you don’t. Just look at it and move on to the next.”
The Pistons will be without Hayes for at least the Milwaukee game, too. Casey used everybody available to him against Miami except veteran Rodney McGruder, but the lack of depth with three key pieces missing was evident. A Pistons bench that came into the game second in scoring at 41 points a game was held to 34 points and was on the floor for the calamitous start of the fourth quarter.
There’s no magic wand to wave to speed tenderfoots through the growing pains. As long as Casey sees no bending of spirit, he’ll live with the results.
“I see where we are. I know we’re in a rebuilding situation,” Casey said. “As long as we compete. We’ve just got to extend those quarters, get that same play a little bit longer, get someone coming off the bench to knock down some shots, to make plays through physicality when things get tough. … I’m patient. We’re all such competitors, but I see the big picture.”