The Pistons are deeply and fully committed to their investment in youth – in Cade Cunningham and Killian Hayes, in Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart – but they remain keenly aware both of the cost of such an investment and of the value of experience.
For anyone else who needed a reminder, they would point you to Wednesday night at Sacramento. It was a night Hayes sat out with injury so Cory Joseph started, a night Cunningham played in constant foul trouble so Rodney McGruder soaked up 32 minutes and a night Kelly Olynyk returned as if he’d never left to play 22 high-impact minutes.
On a back to back, it was those veterans – the only three 30-year-olds on the roster – who led a remarkable comeback win with a huge assist from one or two among the kiddie corps, including a team-leading 30 points from Saddiq Bey. The Pistons gave up 45 second-quarter points to Sacramento, trailed by 12 in the second half and by 10 with three minutes to play, yet they closed on a 13-1 run and got the game-winner from Joseph with 25 seconds to play for a crazy 133-131 victory.
“It was about resiliency, playing through fatigue, playing through whatever was going on to try to find a way to win,” Bey said. “Especially on a back to back, it’s important to grow and have those steps.”
The Pistons needed all of their season-high points total to survive Sacramento’s relentless pressure on the rim and in the paint where the Kings scored 52 of their points and bullied their way into a whopping 44 free throws. In addition to Bey’s 30, which included 5 of 9 3-point shooting, they got 22 from Olynyk after missing 33 games, 19 plus nine assists from Joseph and 15 from McGruder in his second game since being returned from Denver via the rescinded trade for Bol Bol.
Olynyk’s return from a knee injury suffered Nov. 10 had a profound impact on the Pistons. Everything Dwane Casey and general manager Troy Weaver envisioned when they made Olynyk their key off-season veteran acquisition came into focus in what was only his 11th game of the season. He finished with 22 points, nine rebounds, five assists a block and a steal. His triple with 1:36 left pulled the Pistons within three.
“It was a fun game to play,” Olynyk said. “We’ve had guys in and out of the lineup and some stuff hasn’t gone our way. To come in and just see guys enjoy playing the game again was fun. That’s what it was tonight – having fun playing basketball, coming out there and competing, just go and enjoy it at the highest level.”
“Huge,” Casey said of Olynyk’s impact. “We need that – his experience. He reads situations. He made plays. When they busted up the first option, he automatically went to the second option. Just his IQ, offensive rebounds, right place, right time, taking what the game was giving him. All those things were great decisions on his part. To win in this league, we’ve got to have more of that.”
The win was probably sweetest for Joseph, who is now 2-0 in Sacramento since the Kings dealt him to the Pistons at the trade deadline last March for Delon Wright in what they perceived as an upgrade to bolster a playoff run that fell short. Joseph led last season’s win at Sacramento with 24 points and seven assists.
“I love Cory,” Casey said. “He means a lot to our organization, just the young man he is. Just a beautiful human being. He’s won a lot of games, won playoff games for me in Toronto. Hopefully, he’s setting the tone for our young guys here with his play, his professional approach. It’s invaluable to us right now.”
Joseph wound up shouldering a heavy load with the double whammy of Hayes’ absence and Cunningham’s foul trouble, playing 37 minutes with the ball in his hands and committing a single turnover. While Joseph assumed much of Cunningham’s playmaking role, McGruder helped make up for the loss of his scoring punch – Cunningham scored 13 points but fouled out in less than 21 minutes – by getting his 15 points on 10 shots, hitting 3 of 6 from three.
It was no fluke that the three veterans were the runaway leaders for the Pistons in plus/minus for the game – Olynyk at plus 27, McGruder at plus 20 and Joseph at plus 16. Next best: Josh Jackson at plus 8 and Bey at plus 1.
The Pistons young players were thrilled to have Olynyk back, getting a glimpse in training camp practices and the early going how his savvy helps tie units together. Cunningham, who had precious little time together with Olynyk due to his early-season ankle injury, spoke of his eagerness to get Olynyk back earlier in the week and Bey was all smiles talking about him after the win at Sacramento.
“Man, he’s a pro for a reason,” Bey said. “He’s a great vet. He was great down the stretch. He makes a lot of plays with his screening, rolling, passing, scoring, getting to the free-throw line. He does it all. It’s great for us to have him back.”
For where the Pistons hope to go, they’ll remain bullish on the futures of Cunningham and Bey and their twentysomething contemporaries. For where they needed to get to on a January night in Sacramento, it was the only three thirtysomethings on the roster that led them.