Dwane Casey’s Toronto teams became identified with their embrace of 3-point shooting, the way the Raptors developed young players and how Casey trusted them with big moments. But around the NBA, what teams thought of mostly when they saw the Raptors on the schedule was a long night ahead. Nobody was more physical than Casey’s Raptors.
It’s where Casey wants the Pistons to go as one of the NBA’s youngest rosters matures. Count Friday as a very positive step forward. It was a choppy game – 30 fouls called in the first half alone – and it wasn’t always easy on the eye. But it was a thing of beauty for those looking to see a young team get fed up with being bullied. Coaches talk about playing with force and taking the fight to the other guy. That’s what the Pistons did in Friday’s 103-87 win over Toronto.
“From the jump,” Canadian native Trey Lyles said. “I’ve said in the past, we’ve had opportunities to hit the team first and we came out lackadaisical. But I think tonight, our energy was where it needed to be at the start of the first quarter and the third quarter and it showed in the outcome of the game.”
It was the first wire-to-wire win for the Pistons in nearly a year, since Jan. 25, 2021 – a span of 95 games. The 16-point margin of victory was their biggest of the season and it made them 5-3 in January. It was also the fifth straight win over Toronto dating to the start of the 2020-21 season and Casey is now 8-3 against Toronto since coming to the Pistons.
The win came at the expense of a Toronto team very nearly at full strength – only Gary Trent Jr. among rotation players was missing – and coming off a six-game win streak snapped only in its most recent game, a four-point loss to Phoenix.
“It was a good bounce back,” Casey said. “I said before the game, tonight is going to determine a little bit of our backbone and see who we are. We bounced back with the proper approach, focus, energy.”
The Pistons remain without three key players: Jerami Grant, Kelly Olynyk and Frank Jackson. They’re figuring things out and it starts with their brilliant rookie, Cade Cunningham.
Lyles had 21 points and seven rebounds off the bench in 33 minutes, every one of them needed because of persistent foul trouble for Isaiah Stewart. Hamidou Diallo had 18 points and six rebounds, Saddiq Bey 15 points and Josh Jackson 13. Cunningham tied it all together with 18 points, seven rebounds, five assists and just two turnovers as the Pistons committed a season-low eight turnovers.
And when Toronto made its inevitable run, stringing together a 13-0 spurt after the Pistons took their biggest lead at 21 points three minutes into the fourth quarter, it was Cunningham for whom Casey drew up the game’s biggest shot – and the unflappable rookie who drained the shot.
The plot was hatched when Toronto called timeout after Killian Hayes’ twisting drive and layup broke the 13-0 run with 3:14 left. The Raptors called timeout and got a quick basket from Pascal Siakam to again pull within eight. Casey schemed a play that led Cory Joseph to find Cunningham in the corner near the Toronto bench and he coolly banged home a triple for an 11-point lead with 2:41 left. Game over.
“I’m in the gym every day and I see Cade put the work in,” Lyles said. “When it comes down to it, he’s doing it every day so it’s second nature to him. It’s rare to see a rookie with that kind of composure down the stretch. Kudos to him for doing that and being confident in himself.”
“They were making a run. I was proud of our team, the way we stopped that run and came out with the right approach,” Casey said. “That’s where we really made up our mind and were locked in and focused.”
It was a dizzying roller coaster of a week for the Pistons, who sandwiched two impressive wins – coming back from 22 down to beat Utah by 10 on Monday and the wire-to-wire takedown of Toronto on Friday – around an all-time clunker, a 46-point loss at Chicago. But ups and downs aren’t the exclusive domain of the Pistons, lest you lose track of what goes on all around the league. The Bulls, No. 1 in the East, have followed that 46-point win with consecutive losses by 26 and 42 points, both on their home court.
The Pistons are chasing a consistency that even title contenders and veteran teams find elusive. But they’re showing the rest of the NBA that they aren’t going to be willing victims of bullying any longer.
“I feel like last game, we came out there and we weren’t ourselves,” Diallo said. “We didn’t have no pride out there. Tonight, we wanted to not come out like that. We wanted to come out and make sure we were the aggressor, hit first, just give ourselves a chance from start to finish.”