When Isaiah Stewart crumpled to the court on Friday with what appeared a serious ankle injury, the Pistons – already minus Kelly Olynyk – pondered what it would be like to be without their other center, as well. Stewart, somewhat miraculously, was back at practice Saturday and in the starting lineup Sunday.
But the Pistons, indeed, experienced the reality of life without Stewart on Sunday after a jolting altercation that left him bloodied and ejected, enraged after taking a LeBron James backhanded, closed fist to the right eye early in the third quarter. They can only hope they don’t have to go without him for any additional length of time as the NBA decides what, if any, action to take in the aftermath of what was a wild, emotionally charged several minutes in front of an electrified crowd.
“He shouldn’t be facing anything,” Dwane Casey said of possible NBA suspension. “Not getting off the court in time? The league will have to decide that. But the man got eight stitches, whatever it is, across his forehead. He was upset. Blood running down his face. I don’t see any ramifications from the league from that standpoint.”
The incident came with 9:18 left in the third quarter with Jerami Grant, who scored 36 points in a 121-116 loss after the Pistons led by 15 through three quarters, at the foul line. Stewart was staggered by the James blow, then had to be restrained by a succession of Pistons coaches, teammates and security personnel over multiple attempts to get at James.
“You got cut above the eye. It wasn’t on purpose,” Lakers All-Star Anthony Davis said. “We wasn’t going to allow him to keep charging (James).” Davis added, “Everybody knows he’s not a dirty player.”
Casey said he talked to Stewart afterward.
“Don’t let this define who you are,” Casey said he told him. “Just keep your head and don’t get a reputation. I felt for the young man because he’s such a competitor, plays so hard. He’s a great kid. He felt he got a cheap shot across his brow. On the street, it’d be a different story.
“It was a tough play. Isaiah, his eye got cracked all the way open. He was upset for a reason. I don’t think James is a dirty player. It got them going instead of us continuing the momentum.”
The Pistons, though, extended their lead to 17 from 12 at the time of the dustup. The Lakers comeback didn’t start in earnest until the start of the fourth quarter when a Pistons bench, undersized without both Olynyk and Stewart, was outscored 14-2.
And even without James, ejected for the flagrant-2 foul, the Lakers still had three future Hall of Famers to lean on in the fourth quarter and they all played to that level as Los Angeles outscored the Pistons 37-17 in the quarter.
Davis had 12 points, four rebounds, three assists, two steals and three blocked shots in the quarter. Russell Westbrook contributed 15 points, five rebounds, six assists and two steals. And Carmelo Anthony hit both of his triple attempts as part of an 18-point game off the bench. The Pistons, meanwhile, shot 3 of 18 without an assist in the fourth quarter.
“We stopped executing down the stretch,” Casey said. “We had zero assists in the fourth quarter. How we got there was moving the basketball, sharing it, drive-kick-swing, everyone in a rhythm. We’ve got to learn from it and not get caught up in who has it going at that time.”
“Maybe we just got bored with moving the ball, something like that,” Cade Cunningham said after the rookie’s first triple-double: 13 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists. “Guys were confident in their own shots. I feel like that kind of took away from the ball movement. Just something to learn from and apply to the next game.”
The Pistons, quite out of necessity, played small for the stretch run with Grant at center. It’s a tough ask for him to guard Davis. The Lakers wound up with a 51-39 rebound advantage.
“We’ve got to have a next-man-up mentality,” Hamidou Diallo said after a strong game off the bench with 17 points and six rebounds in 21 minutes. “No matter who’s on the floor, we can’t allow a team to outscore us that much in the fourth.”
“You’ve got to know their max players are going to turn on the juice and turn up the physicality,” Casey said. “We’ve got to learn to respond.”
Cunningham picked up seven of his assists in the first half, when the Pistons scored a season-high 68 points. That was before the Stewart-James skirmish, the rookie sizing up the Lakers and making the right reads time and again.
“I think we did a lot of good things today,” he said. “I think we made some progress. Now we know we’ve got to close out fourth quarters. I’m happy to see I was able to accomplish (a triple-double) – that’s big-time. But winning the game is even greater than that. I’m still going to go home kind of sour we lost.”