If this were the first round of the playoffs and Dwane Casey witnessed what he saw Tuesday night, the lineup change would have already happened. Like, at halftime.
But this isn’t the playoffs. It’s not a season the Pistons ever suggested should result in games past April 9. They have three starters who still would hold college eligibility, the NBA’s youngest player earning more minutes all the time and 10 players 24 or younger at the heart of Troy Weaver’s restoration project.
So, no, the fact the Knicks on Tuesday saw a lineup with two big men – Marvin Bagley III and Isaiah Stewart, the latter returning from missing two weeks and seven games with a foot injury – and attacked with impunity from the 3-point line isn’t going to dissolve the discipline Casey and Weaver steeled themselves to apply to the blueprint they’ve forged.
Casey anticipated that teams are going to test Stewart’s ability to transition to power forward, a position he’d never played before getting a taste of it in Summer League in preparation for the season ahead. Julius Randle is a player who averages a healthy 6.4 3-point attempts a game and shoots them right around league average. In Tuesday’s Knicks win, he took six in the first five minutes and made four. Before he checked out after playing the first 10:15, Randle already had launched nine triples and made six.
“Isaiah has the ability to do that, to guard that,” Casey said after the game. “Normally, he doesn’t have a guy shooting it the way Randle shot it tonight. But Isaiah has the ability to switch one through five.”
Weaver and Casey don’t believe in anything about anyone on a roster full of high-character, high-ceiling young players more than they believe in Stewart’s pureness of intent and intensity of willingness to do whatever is required to both make the most of his career and transform the Pistons to title contenders. His picture is affixed to the dictionary definition of “coachable.”
The Knicks might have zeroed in on the Randle-Stewart matchup, but what made it work was more about Randle having an out-of-body shooting experience – on his 28th birthday, no less – than it was about Stewart being ill-equipped to handle the duties of a modern-day NBA power forward.
“We can’t allow them to shoot 3-pointers,” Stewart said. “We’ve got to do a better job of running him off the line. I guarded him. I had to do a better job of running him off the line and not get a look at a 3-pointer.”
Stewart said that from the podium in the postgame interview room at Little Caesars Arena. He was the only player who took the podium after a blowout loss – there’s usually only one player brought there before the locker room opens to a smaller group of reporters – and it speaks volumes that Stewart chose not to beg off the task after such a game. It goes back to why Casey and Weaver hold Stewart in such high regard. Facing questions after the type of shellacking the Pistons took on Tuesday is a task many players would have declined, never mind a player who had been made the focal point of the opponent’s attack.
Take it a step further. Stewart, once on the podium, easily could have offered a defense that Randle had one of those nights that every player good enough to get to the NBA eventually has, that after Randle hit the first one he had Stewart’s attention and hit most of the rest of his threes under some level of duress. But he didn’t. He took full accountability.
Three of those players 24 or younger on the roster are Bagley (23), Stewart (21) and Jalen Duren, who turned 19 less than two weeks ago. The Pistons are heavily invested in all three of them. It’s tough to maximize the return on that investment if you’re only going to play one at a time over a 48-minute game.
But that’s not the only reason, or even the biggest reason, Casey is starting Stewart next to Bagley. It’s because he sees in Stewart a skill set that will give the Pistons an advantage – more size, toughness and rebounding without sacrificing anything at either end, 3-point shooting on offense or defending the perimeter at the other end.
Not on the first night.
“Playing the four is new to me and playing with a big,” said Stewart, who hit 4 of 5 3-point shots in the fourth quarter when he played like it was still a game within reach. “But I feel like me and Marv are going to be fine. We only have a small sample size.”
They started two preseason games together before Bagley went down with a knee injury that cost him a month. Before halftime of the Nov. 14 game where Bagley moved into the starting lineup, Stewart went down when he crashed into the protective boundary along the baseline and sprained his right big toe.
“We haven’t had much time to play together,” Stewart said. “But now that we’re back, I feel we’re going to get in sync.”
Casey looked at the indicators at halftime and knew something was amiss. The Pistons played six games on the road over 12 days, got home after sundown Saturday and played another game Sunday at Little Caesars Arena. He expected a flat effort that night, but the Pistons hung with a good Cleveland team until the final minutes. The letdown came Tuesday.
“We were flat, not crisp, not talking,” he said. “Straight-line drives to the rim. We had zero blocks in the first half, one deflection. That tells me right there we were not active vs. the way we played the last six or seven games.”
It was not a night to form sweeping conclusions, in other words. And it certainly wasn’t a night to back away from a strategic move revolving around a player as central to the path forward for the franchise.