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Stewart’s loss another test of mettle for Casey’s young Pistons

Sometimes, the basketball gods feel compelled to express a bizarrely cruel sense of humor and timing.

Case in point: On the night Dwane Casey makes a move that brings the Pistons closer to establishing the identity he and Troy Weaver envision, by halftime fate informs the Pistons, no, let’s wait on that.

It became obvious in training camp that Casey was keen on accelerating the conversion of Isaiah Stewart to power forward and make the Pistons a bigger, beefier team that would no longer be fighting uphill near the basket. In two of the first three preseason games, Casey started Stewart and Marvin Bagley III and brought newly acquired Bojan Bogdanovic, the most accomplished scorer on the roster, off the bench.

Then Bagley suffered a knee injury in the third preseason game and the experiment had to be shelved. Bagley’s injury left the Pistons with just two available big men given the foot injury that kept Nerlens Noel sidelined for all of camp and the early portion of the regular season.

But, really, it’s Stewart at the heart of Casey’s blueprint for a two-big lineup. Of the four Pistons big men – Stewart, Bagley, Noel and rookie Jalen Duren – only Stewart to date has shown the potential for a 3-point shot that would make defenses honor its threat, never mind Stewart’s greater capacity for defending away from the paint. After an iffy start, Stewart went into Monday having made 40 percent of his threes over the previous nine games – and then went 2 for 2 in the first half before the basketball gods slammed on the brakes.

An errant pass sent Stewart headlong into the fans along the baseline – except now fans are shielded by a protective barrier doubling as an advertising opportunity and Stewart’s foot lost the battle. The Pistons called it a right foot sprain. Casey said after the game that Stewart jammed his toe on the barrier.

In any case, Stewart – whose toughness wouldn’t be questioned by any competitor who’s crossed his path since coming to the NBA two years ago – pulled himself upright and headed immediately to the locker room, limping noticeably. It was the action of a player who knows with certainty something bad just happened.

How bad remains to be seen. There’s little fear of long-term ramifications for either Stewart or the Pistons as a whole, but it requires a young team already long on impatience and desperate to gain some traction to summon within them another dose of patience.

They’re already without Cade Cunningham for at least two more games. And if Cunningham is the straw that stirs the drink, then Stewart is the glass that gives it form.

“He’s kind of the spirit, the fiber of our team,” Casey said a month ago. “The toughness that you want to have, of what Detroit stands for – he’s that.”

That carries considerable value in and of itself. Udonis Haslem has been that for the Miami Heat, occupying a roster spot even though he’s rarely played a meaningful minute for several seasons. But Stewart’s value to the Pistons goes beyond what he represents in pureness of intent. His burgeoning versatility unlocks lineups that are otherwise out of reach for the Pistons. On the court and off of it, Stewart is at the very center of the emerging identity Weaver so clearly enunciated upon his hiring and Casey has so diligently worked to cultivate.

“Eventually, he’s going to be a power forward-slash-center – the other way around,” Casey said before Monday’s tipoff, meaning Stewart’s primary position was in the process of becoming a four instead of a five. “He’s developing into that because he can guard all five positions. So now the last part to come out is his 3-point shooting.”

Casey, who not so long ago was coaching a Toronto team with 50 wins and deep playoff runs as baseline expectations, has shown a remarkable capacity for selling adversity as opportunity to his young team these past two-plus seasons since Weaver’s arrival and the embrace of a bottom-up rebuilding.

It’s not as easy to navigate as he makes it look. The vast majority of players and coaches who ascend to the rarefied air of the NBA are competitors first and foremost and losing brings fresh pain with every occurrence.

“Troy tells me all the time,” Casey said Monday night before losing to Toronto and losing Stewart in the process, “ ‘Drink a cup of patience every morning.’ ”

A coach’s job, in large measure, is to find silver linings in every dark cloud. Cunningham’s absence has given Jaden Ivey the chance to flex his muscles and his proficiency in doing so will serve the Pistons well when Cunningham is back. The same opportunity for others to provide the things Stewart offers, as difficult as they are to mimic, now presents itself.

Teams that overcome all that gets thrown at them eventually win over even the basketball gods.