The Pistons didn’t need Cade Cunningham’s absence to remind them of how central he’s become already to the functionality of their offense. That they got to 94 points with his scoring and playmaking panache – on a night their most prolific 3-point shooter’s aim wasn’t true – was a testament to the promise of two players who weren’t on their horizon not long ago.
Cunningham missed the game when he became ill overnight – Dwane Casey said he showed up for Tuesday’s morning shootaround “looking like death eating a cracker” – and the Pistons first unit struggled to get to 22 points in both the first and third quarters without their dynamic rookie, averaging 23.1 points a game in March.
Most of their best moments came when a mix of bench players took the court, led by rookie Isaiah Livers and recently acquired Marvin Bagley III. Livers finished with career bests in points (16) and minutes (31), though keep in mind that career consists of 10 games now.
“We were down, so I knew I was going to have to step up,” Livers said after the 105-98 loss to Miami. “Being a young guy, it doesn’t matter. I’m always ready to play. Coach Casey knows that. I felt like we had ’em at certain points, but missed an assignment or two. Those threes go a long way. I don’t know how many we gave up in the second half, but felt like a lot.”
Livers missed all of the off-season recuperating from spring foot surgery that ended his senior season and Michigan career before the NCAA tournament last season and lingering pain sidetracked his expected fall return. Livers played one November game with the Pistons, then was shut down for another few months.
That he hasn’t appeared overwhelmed to date despite getting dropped into the middle of an NBA season is remarkable enough. That he’s shown glimpses of being an indispensable piece of the Pistons future for the rare size-shooting-smarts trifecta he brings makes landing Livers with the 42nd pick in the 2021 draft look like another master stroke for Troy Weaver’s front office.
Livers hit 4 of 5 from the 3-point arc on a night the rest of the Pistons hit 6 of 29. With Saddiq Bey barely extending his streak of games with a made 3-pointer to 43 – he missed his first seven, finished 1 of 9 and didn’t connect until 2:58 remained, pulling the Pistons within two at the time – the Pistons needed everything Livers could offer. The three ball is the most important piece of Livers’ portfolio, but by itself it wouldn’t have moved the needle enough for him to have won over Casey so emphatically in such short order.
“He’s doing so many other things,” Casey said. “He’s defending. He was one who was connected to (Miami players), challenging shots, running the floor, making the right read, the right pass. I’m really impressed with the young man and the way he’s playing. He’s finding his way into the core of our group with the way he’s playing.”
It wasn’t just the threes that stuck out from Livers. He hit a tough jump shot off the dribble, he had a steal he converted into a transition layup and he picked up two assists without committing a turnover in extended minutes. Casey thinks he’s one of his most aware defenders, a part of Livers’ game that was in question coming into the draft – but not by Livers, apparently.
“That’s something I told Weaver and Casey in the draft process. You want a guy who can guard one through five, switch on defense and be the anchor of your defense, I can do that, for sure.”
The Pistons got three players back from three-game injury absences – Isaiah Stewart, Killian Hayes and Rodney McGruder – but foul trouble to Hayes, Stewart and Cory Joseph made for some unusual lineup combinations as Casey was forced to be inventive. Livers spent time with both Jerami Grant, who led the Pistons with 22 points, and Bey in a big perimeter group, while Stewart and Bagley also played together for a stretch of the fourth quarter.
The Pistons used a 19-0 run that spanned the final 6:56 of the third quarter, holding Miami scoreless on 13 consecutive possessions, to carry a five-point lead into the fourth quarter. Miami quickly recovered as Max Strus, who didn’t play until late in the third quarter, scored the Heat’s first 13 points in the first three minutes of the quarter and matched Livers with 16 off the bench for the game.
Bagley, who went back to his role off the bench with Stewart’s return, made it eight straight games with double-figures scoring (13, plus six rebounds and two blocked shots) while making more than half his shots (6 of 9). Hayes finished with nine points, four rebounds and eight assists before fouling out.
For all of the lineup juggling necessitated by Cunningham’s absence and foul trouble, the Pistons had the East’s No. 1 seed on the ropes. It’s easy to overlook in a game with as many swings and unexpected star turns, but there was no bigger single factor in the outcome than the disparity at the foul line. Not only did Miami shoot 17 more than the Pistons, 39-22, but the Pistons missed twice as many foul shots and were outscored by 21 at the line. They made eight more baskets than Miami and shot 46 percent to the Heat’s 40 percent.
“Any time you put someone to the line 39 times to our 22, that’s a lot of free throws,” Casey said. “Shot 39, made 35 in a seven-point game. There’s not a remedy for that.”
The remedy was almost provided by two players who had zero impact for the first two-thirds of the season. The Pistons felt pretty confident Bagley would be part of their future the second they consummated the trade for him last month. Livers is rapidly working his way into the same strata. The fact he was able to absorb lessons that almost always only come through experience while idled with injury speaks to the basketball IQ Casey lauds in him.
“Being out, definitely I was locked in, especially to my team,” Livers said. “I was seeing where we need that push and that shove. What I saw was defensive energy right away off the bench. That was my key right away to minutes off the bench. Once I watched that, everything else just came natural.”