CHICAGO, IL - Detroit Pistons visit the Chicago Bulls Tuesday February 27, 2024 in Chicago, IL. Pistons won 105-95. (Amanda J. Cain/Detroit Pistons)

Pistons show their mettle in a blueprint win over the Bulls

Monty Williams and Troy Weaver haven’t had many serene nights over the past four months, but Tuesday almost certainly was one of them.

They’re not going to beat their chests or make any wild proclamations, of course, but through the fog of a dizzying two-day road trip that saw them visit New York and Chicago you can see the outline of the team the Pistons want to become – a team that can clamp down defensively, then use Cade Cunningham’s offensive genius to blend the combination of breathtaking athleticism and intriguing complementary players added to their mix.

But for the inexplicable no-call that cost the Pistons a very likely victory at Madison Square Garden – an error the NBA formally admitted in Tuesday’s Last 2-Minute Report – they’d be sitting on their third two-game winning streak of the season ahead of a March schedule heavy on home games and the chance to put their future on firm footing.

Beyond all of that, let’s take a moment to probe the bigger picture. Amid the ruin of a 28-game losing streak, fueled by an unimaginable run of injuries that compounded the typical trials of a preposterously young team, the Pistons continued to show up. Half the roster got turned over at the trade deadline – with all four of their most accomplished veterans shipped out – and that could have been at minimum disorienting, at worst dispiriting.

And yet the Pistons went on the road and won back-to-back games at Sacramento and Portland just before the All-Star break, then came back and endured two soul-crushing losses – swinging on calls that would have tested even veteran playoff teams – heading into Tuesday’s match at Chicago. The Pistons tipped off 22 hours after having their guts ripped out in New York while the Bulls were home, rubbing their palms together in anticipation.

To win on Tuesday and to hold their opponent to a season-low 95 points vibrated with meaning on at least a couple of levels – for the mettle they showed in the face of absurd adversity and for the blueprint of their win, centered on defense to create transition scoring chances and, when that didn’t present itself, to let Cunningham scan his options and dice up a defense.

Healthy again after missing time with a knee strain, Cunningham’s roll continued in Chicago with 26 points, five rebounds and five assists, hitting 9 of 13 shots and 3 of 5 from three while getting to the line for seven free throws. For everything that went sideways for the Pistons this season, it will all have been worth it when the season ends and Cunningham has established himself, as he’s emphatically accomplishing, as an alpha star.

It also helps immensely that he checks off all the intangible boxes, too.

“Coach talked about it a couple of times,” he responded when asked postgame about the difficulty of bouncing back after Monday’s nightmare in New York. “Got to put it behind us, got to respond and got to continue to push. That’s what we did. I’m just proud of my team, happy to be with these guys. This is an amazing response from us.”

It’s a response only made possible by strong leadership and willing followers. Cunningham has been in lockstep with Williams since training camp and spoke last month of how the travails of the season only deepened their mutual respect.

Tuesday’s win coincided with the return of Isaiah Stewart and that a win resulted wasn’t purely, uh, coincidental. Williams wasn’t about to let that go unnoticed, either.

“Make no mistake,” he said. “Having Stewie back was a huge deal for us.”

“He brings so much to us that doesn’t always show up on the box score,” Cunningham said. “His toughness, the way he goes about defending, rebounding the ball, the way he talks to us. He’s just the ultimate glue guy, somebody you want to play hard for because you know he’ll run through a wall for you. It’s great to have him back. He was huge tonight.”

The Pistons would have loved to have Stewart, who missed a month between his ankle injury and a three-game suspension, before Tuesday. But the timing of his return might have been the spirit boost needed to overcome long odds on a tough back-to-back. Williams, who went to bat vociferously for his guys in the gloom of New York, beamed over their response.

“I just told ’em, I said the way they’ve handled this past week – we lose Stewie right before the (Indiana) game, play our tails off in the second half in Indianapolis, come up short, the last two games, end-of-game situations, we come up short, travel, get here late and they just come in, like I’ve said all year long, wide-eyed, ready to go and compete. It takes a lot of character and integrity and connection to be able to win games on the road against a team that’s been playing pretty well.”

It wasn’t easy for the Pistons to part with Bojan Bogdanovic, Alec Burks and Monte Morris for the stability and shooting they provided to an offense that’s in the hands of a bunch of young 20-something guards. But it’s pretty clear that they’ve upgraded defensively with the two core pieces they added, Simone Fontecchio – who moved to the bench and provided 17 points, hitting five triples – and Quentin Grimes.

Stewart took Fontecchio’s spot with the starters and his relentless physicality is an overlooked ingredient of the recipe the Pistons are fine tuning. Jalen Duren and Ausar Thompson give them two breathtaking frontcourt athletes. And when they can avoid turnovers – they overcame 20 to beat Chicago, making holding the Bulls to 95 points even more remarkable – and set up a half-court defense, Jaden Ivey becomes a lightning bolt in the open court.

“J.D. said, ‘We’ve got to get in jail break – that’s our transition offense off of misses – and with J.I.’s speed, Cade’s craftiness and Stewie – he physically puts his body on people, so he just wears them out – and then you’ve got A.T. running,” Williams said. “That’s been our best offense all year long. And that group can be a high-level defensive group. When you have Ausar and Stewie just hounding the top two offensive guys … and then I thought Cade and J.I. did a great job of playing on the second side and getting over screens. That allowed for us to get out in jail break tonight and when J.I. is coming at you full speed, not too many people want to deal with that.”

So that’s what these last six-plus weeks and 24 games are about. Putting the NBA on notice of what dealing with the Detroit Pistons is about to look like. A team that gets off the mat and beats you with defense and athleticism and the offensive aplomb of a burgeoning star.

“This feels amazing,” Cunningham said. “Emotional day yesterday. This morning, still kind of felt it a little bit. Put it behind us. This is a huge game for us.”

On more than one level, indeed.