Cunningham, Grant

Stewart injury looms over Pistons gut-wrenching loss

Dwane Casey knew there would be nights like this. But knowing they’re coming in August and enduring their agony in November are two different animals.

“At some point, the basketball gods are going to be good to us,” he said after going through the mental inventory of all the little plays that conspired to hand the Pistons their 11th loss in 15 tries, 105-102 to Golden State. “Some of those shots that are going out will go in.”

Frank Jackson had his best game of the season by several laps, scoring 27 points off the bench, and fate put the ball in his hands with a chance to tie and force overtime. Jackson had the shot lined up perfectly from the top of the arc and was more certain it was going to fall than any of the five other triples that made up his night.

“It’s crazy,” he said, recalling the unlikely way that last shot circled the rim before spinning out. “That actually felt like the best one I took all night. I’ll be honest. Sometimes they fall, sometimes they don’t.”

Overshadowing the loss was the status of Pistons big man Isaiah Stewart, the soul of Troy Weaver’s restoration for everything he represents in toughness and hustle as the building blocks of what Dwane Casey aspires for his team. A minute into the second half, Stewart crumpled to the court under Golden State’s basket, writhing in pain as he rolled over onto his back and clasped his head with his hands.

What seemed ominous turned bleak when Stewart needed help rising to his feet, his arms draped around trainers and teammates as he put almost no weight on his injured right ankle. Minutes later, he was ruled out for the game. And, indeed, he never returned. But a sliver of light broke through when Stewart was upgraded to questionable after testing the ankle and returned to the bench, the ankle wrapped with ice.

“That’s always uncomfortable,” rookie Cade Cunningham said of seeing a teammate in anguish. “Isaiah does so much for us. He brings so much energy, so much passion. I’m glad he’s feeling good about getting back on the court soon. It definitely sucks to see that, but it’s next man up. We’ve got to have the next guy come in and contribute.”

Who that next guy will be is anyone’s guess. The Pistons might have avoided a long-term injury for Stewart, but any absence will present them with issues. Already missing Kelly Olynyk until at least late December, the Pistons are left with only rookie Luka Garza as a true center on the roster. Trey Lyles has been used as Stewart’s primary backup since Olynyk went out last week with a knee injury. When it got to winning time on Friday, Casey used Grant at center, flanked by Cunningham and Saddiq Bey.

“One is our rebounding,” Casey said when asked the challenge of going without Stewart. “We got outrebounded 48 to 34. Fourteen offensive rebounds, reloads, and every time it seemed like they got a 3-pointer out of it. They’re a shot-making team and that’s what the difference is right now with the top teams in our league.”

Nobody made more than Jordan Poole, the third-year guard out of Michigan who was a surprise first-round pick by the Warriors in 2019. He finished with 32 on a night the Warriors played without Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala.

The Pistons trailed by 16 after a third quarter in which they were outscored 30-19, cut it to eight in the first three minutes and pulled within three when Grant hit a pair of free throws with 33 seconds left. Cunningham’s block at the rim of Andrew Wiggins gave them the ball back with plenty of time to set up for the game-tying attempt. Grant shot first from the left wing and missed. Cory Joseph grabbed the rebound and Jackson had the game on his fingertips.

“It was a tough one,” Jackson said. “I thought we battled. Some things we did well, definitely some things we let up on.”

The fact Golden State was able to manufacture a win minus so much firepower will linger with Casey, foremost, who talked before the game about his wariness when teams rest stars for the effect it has on the opposition.

“Our start of the third quarter was disappointing,” Casey said. “I thought we’d come out with more juice and they came out guns a-blazin’. Just some of the mental things we didn’t execute.”

Nothing was more disappointing, of course, and nothing will linger quite like the loss of Stewart if that proves of any significant duration.

“It’s tough. You never want to see that,” Jackson said. “Unfortunately, that’s part of the game. Shoot, I hope he’s OK. He’s a tough dude. He’ll be back.”