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‘We got real stagnant’ – Pistons start fast but fall to Pelicans

Forget 24 hours. The Pistons got 24 minutes to imagine what a fully realized version of themselves would look like.

Pretty good, is how it looked. Then the second half started and the Pistons soon were down a man – Cade Cunningham with a right hip pointer with the good news being no one sees it as a long-term concern – and then down on the scoreboard in a 111-101 loss.

“We got real stagnant,” Frank Jackson said. “We were rolling and they just got us back on our heels and got a couple of easy ones. That was a tough one.”

The Pistons scored 65 points in a first half that underscored the depth they fully expected would be their strength when the season began. They had 76 points and a 15-point lead a little more than four minutes into the third quarter. But then Cunningham exited and the offense unraveled – 25 points in the last 19-plus minutes – and whether it was that simple or whether it was the expected bumps in the road when key players return and roles are altered up and down the rotation is anyone’s guess.

“We kind of got discombobulated in the fourth quarter,” Dwane Casey said after the Pistons welcomed Jerami Grant and Kelly Olynyk back after they missed a combined 61 games with injuries followed by stints in NBA health and safety protocols. “We’ve got to get that back. It’s all about rhythm. As much as guys have been out, trying to get back in is difficult – and key guys that the ball is going to be going through.”

Grant last played in a Dec. 10 loss at New Orleans when he suffered a thumb injury that required surgery. He finished with 17 points in 29 minutes, hit 6 of 13 shots and 3 of 6 from the 3-point line.

“I think we were playing really well for the first 2½ quarters,” Grant said. “We let up in the third quarter. Just got to finish games out how we started. I think we scored 14 points in the fourth quarter. Not enough points to win an NBA game.”

Olynyk committed five of the Pistons 18 turnovers while playing 17 minutes, clearly a byproduct of so much time off.

“The way we’re successful is getting the ball to the right person,” Casey said. “Not force feeding it, not going iso, especially until Jerami and Kelly get their rhythm. Kelly had, what? Five turnovers? That’s rust.”

Cunningham exited with 5:25 left in the third quarter and the Pistons leading 76-65. He went to the locker room, then came back and tried to loosen up the hip on an exercise bike, but returned to the locker room again. He finished the game on the Pistons bench and didn’t appear to be in any pain.

“I hope he’s OK,” Jackson said. “I didn’t even see what happened. He came back at the end of the game. He said he was good. It doesn’t look too serious.”

Cory Joseph led the Pistons with 18 points and of their four double-figures scorers, two were starters and two came off the bench. The bench scored 27 first-half points and did it on 75 percent shooting, the type of firepower that Casey envisioned for his second unit before injuries upended the blueprint. If Cunningham’s absence is brief – the Pistons play Thursday-Friday home games after taking Wednesday off – and Grant and Olynyk shake the rust off quickly, the Pistons can use the season’s final 32 games to find out what they’ve got heading into another critical off-season.

Three of them – Cunningham, Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey – found out Tuesday they’ll represent the Pistons at All-Star Weekend in the Rising Stars game that fits first- and second-year NBA players.

“It still hurts to get your butt beat, but that’s one byproduct of our program of development,” Casey said. “We have three very exciting young players who have come into our program. It’s a credit to them. They’ve put in the work. They’re paying their dues. People are getting us now, but down the road it’s going to definitely pay off for us.”