Saben Lee

‘Our response was big-time’ – Pistons battle Bucks after rough start

Among the things the Pistons won’t be thankful for as they awake in Los Angeles on the holiday: the NBA schedule maker.

Their early-season murderer’s row continued in Milwaukee on Wednesday night – their third game in four nights, all against NBA title contenders, and a back to back, at that – and began about as nightmarishly as feared: a 14-0 Milwaukee run. It was all uphill from there for a team missing three key players and badly undersized with both Isaiah Stewart and Kelly Olynyk unavailable.

It was a perfect storm aligned against the Pistons and Dwane Casey knew what was coming at tipoff.

“When you’re a good team, you see a team coming off a back to back,” he said after the Bucks pulled away for good early in the fourth quarter for a 114-93 win, “you try to jump on them early.”

It could have turned into a bloodbath early, but Casey made about every move available to him given the short bench and the lack of size and, somehow, the Pistons pulled back within three points midway through the second quarter. He’s been in the NBA for nearly three decades and understands moral victories aren’t really a thing, but competitiveness in the face of adversity is very much a thing – and that’s what he saw from his inexperienced and undermanned team against the NBA champions.

“I thought our response was big time,” he said. “For a young group of guys to come in and play against the defending champion team, who jumps out to a big lead like that. … Our guys responded in the right way. We defended in the right way. We scored in the first half. I loved the way we responded and came together as a group.”

Casey’s bench – even missing Olynyk and Cory Joseph, who was elevated to the starting lineup but went scoreless in just seven minutes after spraining his right ankle in Tuesday’s loss to Miami – scored 30 first-half points, getting especially encouraging outings from Trey Lyles and Saben Lee.

Lyles scored 14 of his 19 points in the first half for a season high and added seven rebounds. Lee, who’d played a total of 43 NBA minutes around his time with the Motor City Cruise of the G League, didn’t commit a turnover while scoring 12 points to go with five rebounds, five assists and four steals. Lyles was plus-three in his 23 minutes, Lee even in his 29 minutes.

“Just coming in and trying to have an impact, starting on the defensive end,” Lee said of his frame of mind when summoned early. “Just picking up the guards full court and trying to change the pace of the game. Get across (half-court) in 21 (on the shot clock) and just attack the paint and find my teammates.”

Lyles is playing out of position at center with Stewart and Olynyk out, but he’s capable of giving the Pistons scoring they sorely need. Casey saw him pump-fake himself out of several open 3-point shots in Tuesday’s loss to Miami and gave him a pep talk in Milwaukee.

Lyles, like most Pistons – who continue to rank 30th in 3-point shooting, starting the night at 29.9 percent – is off his career norm, shooting 25 percent for the season from the arc. He’ll stay there, hitting 2 of 8, but Casey had no quibbles with the quality of the 45 3-pointers the Pistons got up against the Bucks, who outscored the Pistons by 12 points from the arc despite nine fewer tries. Bobby Portis hit 6 of 7 in a 28-point, 10-rebound night, benefitting from playing alongside Giannis Antetokoumnpo.

“Bobby’s shooting the three very well. We knew that, but you have to give up something,” Casey said. “You’re not going to take away everything. That’s why they won the championship last year. We tried our best to slow down Giannis and, in doing so, you’re going to give up something.”

The Pistons get Stewart back on Friday against the Los Angeles Clippers – the road trip also includes games with the Lakers, Portland and reigning Western Conference champion Phoenix, so no breaks coming – and also could get Killian Hayes back from his thumb injury, though Frank Jackson left the Milwaukee game late with a sprained left ankle. Whoever is available to play, Casey at least left Milwaukee with the sense the odds stacked against his team hasn’t broken its spirit.

“We don’t want to get happy with close,” he said. “We want to compete, to develop winning habits and we all understand the circumstances we’re under right now and who we’re playing against. But let’s stay hungry, keep that edge on our shoulder and not be happy just being close. That’s the way we build our foundation, build our culture, build our team for the future.”