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‘Just couldn’t get it going’ – Pistons run out of gas at Memphis

The Pistons got the band back together – well, sort of – but the sound was that of a bedraggled bunch of weary crooners worn out from the road at the tail end of a long tour.

Isaiah Stewart rejoined the starting lineup after missing six games – joining other recently returned starters Cade Cunningham and Killian Hayes – but the starters, still without scoring anchor Jerami Grant, never found their groove. The Pistons were, quite literally, sick and tired.

“I feel for our guys because you could just see on their faces. They were trying to get it going,” Dwane Casey said after the Pistons, playing a back to back and their third game in four nights after enduring the roster ravages caused by a COVID-19 wave, lost 118-88 to Memphis. “Just couldn’t get it going. Then the guys coming off the bench, the same thing.”

They surrendered a 17-0 run early in the first quarter and a 14-2 blitz to open the second half. NBA plus/minus numbers can be sometimes misleading, but there’s not much left for misinterpretation when every starter is at least minus-25 for his minutes played.

Stewart didn’t have his trademark energy after being confined to quarantine for nearly two weeks. Cunningham, who missed four games and then logged 37 minutes in Monday’s exhilarating win at Milwaukee, went 5 of 19 and scored 10 of his 12 points during a late first-half outburst before missing all six of his second-half shots.

Saddiq Bey was the lone starter not to be sidelined by the NBA’s health and safety protocols over the past two weeks and shouldered an enormous workload because of it. Over his past 10 games, he’d averaged 39 minutes a game and nearly 24 points. But Bey’s only basket in nine attempts in a three-point night came with less than four minutes to play.

“Our fuel meter was down,” Casey said. “The energy level was down from top to bottom. Guys coming off the bench, guys starting. It really showed in our shooting. Everything was short.”

The starters scored a combined 38 points and shot 16 of 56 overall (28.6 percent) and 4 of 26 (15.4 percent) from the 3-point arc. Without Grant, who’ll likely miss another month with the mid-December thumb injury, the scoring load falls to Cunningham and Bey. They combined for 15 points on 6 of 28 shooting.

Saben Lee, another who missed four games in health and safety protocols, gave the Pistons a momentary boost in the first half when the Pistons cut an 18-point deficit to eight early in the second quarter, finished with 14 points and five assists in a little less than 16 minutes.

“It was a tough couple of days,” Lee admitted. “I feel a little winded coming back for my first couple of games. Just trying to get my conditioning right, my rhythm. Just being in the hotel for a while, not being able to play any basketball, you’re going to be a little rusty.”

Stewart rejoined the team in Charlotte on Tuesday after clearing testing hurdles and found himself returning against one of the NBA’s strongest, most physical centers in Steven Adams, whose 14 rebounds helped Memphis to a dominant 61-39 rebounding edge.

“I felt like at times we got a few stops in a row, we’d go down and rush on offense,” Stewart said after a 20-minute return in which he contributed six points, eight rebounds and two blocked shots. “If we’re a bit more patient on offense when we were in that stretch of getting stops, we’d have been in a better place.”

Casey was surprised that players like Cunningham and Hayes were able to handle their minutes load in their returns earlier in the trip, but he saw it catch up to them all in Memphis.

“I think the excitement of coming back, the first couple of games, you could see the energy level,” he said. “I’m not making excuses, because Memphis is a high-powered team and a tough team, but I know Isaiah struggled just with his energy level. All the shots that were short were a byproduct of the fatigue level and the sickness.”

The Pistons hope to get their final player to exit health and safety protocols, Cory Joseph, back when they host Orlando on Saturday after a day off that will come as welcome to all.

“We’ve got to get the gas tank refueled,” Casey said. “Get our energy back, go back home and compete from there.”