Cunningham, Joseph

Locked in, locked down: Pistons D up Pacers

Dwane Casey remains confident the Pistons eventually will get out of the NBA basement in 3-point shooting because, well, he has to remain confident about that. However long that takes to turn the corner, he’s unwilling to accept any consequences of lousy shooting as inevitable.

So Wednesday was a win on at least two levels. The Pistons beat Indiana, their third win in the last five games as Cade Cunningham settles in, and they beat the shooting demons that have crippled them in past games. This time, even as they bumped along at 4 of 20 from the 3-point arc deep into the third quarter, Casey’s band of young pups refused to allow their frustration to bubble over and infect their defense.

“That’s the resilient part,” Casey said, referencing the third of three words he put up on the locker room white board after the Pistons loss to Sacramento on Monday, a game Casey called “that debacle.” The other two words: consistency and compete.

The Pistons got all three in Wednesday’s 97-89 win over the Pacers. They played consistently hard, they competed on virtually every possession and they exhibited resiliency most glaringly in the fourth quarter when the Pacers scored the first six points to take a 79-73 lead – and then saw the Pistons hold them to 10 points the rest of the way.

“Last game, we did a bad job of getting back in transition,” Jerami Grant said after leading the Pistons with 19 points, including a huge jump shot late in the shot clock with a minute left to bump the lead to six points. “This game, we did a great job of slowing them down and making them play in the half court.”

The Pistons held Indiana 18 points under its average of 107. It started with the Pistons forcing 14 first-half turnovers, using their length and active hands to produce 11 first-half steals, 13 for the game.

But the Pacers have too many veterans and savvy scorers to be held down for 48 minutes. Caris LeVert went scoreless in the first half but scored 12 in the first half of the third quarter and the Pacers broke loose for 32 points in the quarter. The Pistons, meanwhile, missed their first six 3-pointers of the quarter – one better, more open than the last – and looked destined for another loss chalked up to anemic scoring eventually undermining defensive will.

Nope, not this time.

“We stayed mentally locked in. That’s what it comes down to for us,” Cory Joseph said after scoring a season-high 18 points off the bench, hitting 7 of 11 shots. “We’re a young team and we play with a lot of energy. We’ve got to stay mentally locked in. You can’t play smart and not hard or hard but not smart. We put the two together today and came out with a W.”

The dam broke a little when Saddiq Bey hit back-to-back triples and put up nine points in the last three minutes of the third quarter. Joseph helped the Pistons get stabilized after the Pacers wobbled them with the 6-0 run to open the fourth quarter. And then Casey brought Cunningham back with 6:38 to go and the Pistons trailing by a point. Despite struggling again from the 3-point line – Cunningham made his first, then missed his last seven – the rookie again put his aplomb on display, scoring four points, grabbing two rebounds and picking up two assists in the home stretch.

Joseph’s triple to give the Pistons the lead for good at 85-82 came off a beautiful setup by Cunningham 51 seconds after he re-entered the game and came one possession after Cunningham’s tough contested jump shot tied the game. He rebounded Myles Turner’s missed three and scored on a driving layup on the next possession, hit Frank Jackson perfectly for a triple on the possession after that and found another open 3-point shooter, Grant, on the very next trip.

“Cade is getting better each and every day as a leader and for himself,” Joseph said. “We all know how big of a talent he is and he’s continuing to prove that. He’s doing a great job and all the guys are just following.”

“He’s just continuing to get better and better and better and learn as he goes along,” Casey said. “That’s what he’s doing.”

The Pistons are 4-10 but now 4-5 in games Cunningham has played. His impact on Casey’s offense is already profound and certain to multiply. As that arc fills out and a team built to revolve around its defensive prowess matures, the Pistons will be on their way to fulfilling the vision general manager Troy Weaver and Casey share of building a contender on the bedrock principles that elevated the Bad Boys and Goin’ to Work Pistons to NBA champions.

It starts with not letting the inevitable offensive travails young players must endure spill over to the defensive end.

“That’s what you have to do in this league to be successful,” Casey said. “That’s the hardest thing for young players to do. Missed shot, whatever happens. We’re learning that. That’s part of the restore/rebuild personality we have right now.”