Pistons wrap up first half in familiar fashion – fighting & scratching: ‘We fit the city of Detroit’

The Pistons wrapped up the first half of their season with a game that perfectly encapsulated many of the 35 that came before it. Fall behind, surge back, fall behind again and – at a point when struggling teams usually flail and sputter and accept their fate – sure enough, the Pistons keep coming back.

Shorthanded again – playing without starters Jerami Grant and Delon Wright and super sub Josh Jackson – a night after playing their most sublime offensive game of the first half, the Pistons battled the Knicks hard before losing 114-104.

When Troy Weaver talks about putting a team on the floor Pistons fans and their championship-era players can look at with pride even as they rebuild and Dwane Casey preaches about building a culture that can sustain itself, this is one huge, fundamental component of it.

“That’s one thing I just told the team in there,” Casey said after sending the Pistons their separate ways over the All-Star break. “Nobody can ever question your heart, how hard you play, your grit. We fit the city of Detroit.”

There’s a point in most NBA games where runs are traded and one team finally opens a lead that looks insurmountable and that, you figure, is that. But Casey’s young Pistons – and not only do the Pistons feature the NBA’s third-youngest roster, but those young players have been put in prominent roles – don’t adhere to that sort of conventional wisdom. Perhaps because they’re too young to know it exists.

“Just a competitive edge, a competitive spirit,” rookie Saddiq Bey said after the loss to New York. “All of our guys, every day, we try to take advantage of the opportunity to play. Even if somebody is up 15, 20 points, we know if there’s time on the clock we can make a run.”

Bey has moved into a starting role as a 21-year-old. Isaiah Stewart, 19, began the season out of the rotation but didn’t take long to cement his status as Mason Plumlee’s backup. Saben Lee, 21, was kept on a leash in large measure to preserve his allowable days with the parent Pistons as a player on a two-way contract, but he’s emerged since Delon Wright’s groin injury two weeks ago to validate the praise Casey lavished on him based on his practice performances.

The Pistons don’t have a ton of veterans left with the trade of Derrick Rose and Blake Griffin being away as his future is settled, but the ones remaining – Grant, Wright, Mason Plumlee, Wayne Ellington and Rodney McGruder – have embraced not only the rookies but the organizational mission to restore its status among the NBA elite. Those veterans, too, have established an environment that allows the rookies’ collective enthusiasm to blossom instead of being repressed.

“Never stop fighting and never quit,” Stewart said of the mindset he sees around him. “Continue to work, whether we’re down however many points it is. We’re still going to play hard until the clock runs out.”

The rookies aren’t the only young players constituting the franchise’s future. Jackson just turned 24. Svi Mykhailiuk is 23 and in his third season. Sekou Doumbouya is still just 20 and scored 10 points in 15 minutes off the bench as he gets his legs back after being in concussion protocol last month.

And Killian Hayes, the 19-year-old lottery pick, had the most prominent role of all the rookies before being felled by a hip injury in his seventh game. Casey cites getting him back at some point over the second half atop the wish list for the rest of the Pistons season.

That’s mostly for the peace of mind it will give him to know he’s healthy and carry him into his off-season with a base of experience and knowledge that his fellow rookies are absorbing now and leaving big impressions in their wake.

“At certain times, (the inexperience) bites us in the behind, but for the most part, one thing about this team, I never question how hard they play,” Casey said. “There’s a reason why the experienced teams win big and we’re going to get there. I told them there’s things I see that aren’t showing up in the win and loss column, but that are positives – the grit and grind and stick-to-it attitude is at the top of the list.”

Another half-season of playing time for the rookies and other young Pistons, another off-season for Weaver to plug in a few more parts, a summer of intense instruction they were robbed of last year by pandemic protocols and who knows where this franchise might be a year from now?

“This group, I love their character,” Casey said. “Their heart, the way they fight and not give in. Teams right now are going to have to really, really fight to beat us.”