There are stages NBA teams must pass through and when you start from scratch the way the Pistons did a year-plus ago, it seems like forever before any boxes can be checked off.
It won’t make a lot of headlines, but the Pistons might have started filling in at least one of those boxes in Wednesday’s 122-101 dismantling of the Atlanta Hawks, a year ago participants in the Eastern Conference finals and now playing desperately for favorable play-in position.
The Hawks won a critical game at New York on Tuesday to pull them to .500. That meant the Pistons, for the third straight game, would be facing a team on a back to back while they held the rest advantage. They failed to capitalize against both Cleveland and Portland. But they attacked the Hawks with bloodthirsty zeal, leading by eight at halftime and them suffocating them with a 23-0 run early in the third quarter.
“I think we learned from that,” said Marvin Bagley III, one of the 10 players 23 or younger added by Troy Weaver in his less than two years on the job. “We started off a little slow last game and it came back to haunt us at the end of the game. Today, we came out with a lot of energy. We talked about coming into our walk-through already locked in, ready to go.”
The Bad Boys and the Goin’ to Work era Pistons both won NBA championships with the same cold-blooded disregard for an opponent’s vulnerabilities. Their strikes were surgical, opportunistic and businesslike. Get in, get your business done, move on to the next.
That’s the stance the Pistons built by Weaver and molded by Dwane Casey assumed during that third-quarter run, holding Atlanta scoreless on 13 straight possessions to explode their halftime lead to 29 points by the midway mark of the third quarter. When they had the Hawks down, they didn’t give them a sniff at an easy basket that risked reversing momentum.
“I was pleased with our approach,” Casey said. “We set the tone at the beginning. We knew they had played a tough back to back last night in New York.”
With his bench shortened by injuries to Hamidou Diallo, Frank Jackson and Isaiah Livers, Casey got double-figure scoring from eight of the nine players he used until throwing rookie two-way player Jamorko Pickett into the mix in the final five minutes. The Pistons outrebounded the road-weary Hawks 55-40, spread the scoring around and shared the ball well enough that five players had at least four assists among a team total of 31.
But Casey wanted most to extol a defense that held a high-powered offense to 101 points and below 40 percent shooting overall and 32 percent 3-point shooter.
“That’s the number two or three offense,” Casey said, pointing to 20-year-old big man Isaiah Stewart – who finished with eight points and 10 rebounds in 23 minutes – for his work not only around the rim but also for his smothering switches when he found himself isolated on Hawks All-Star whippet Trae Young. On one memorable possession in the third quarter, Stewart stayed in front of Young through a series of feints and eventually forced a traveling violation.
“Zay’s a great defender,” Killian Hayes said. “That’s why we trust him to switch onto these crafty guards because we know he can guard them.”
Hayes had one of the night’s other highlight-reel moments, a first-half slam dunk off a gorgeous behind-the-back feed from Rodney McGruder to complete a two-on-one transition chance.
“It felt great,” Hayes said. “It was a great play by Rod. The opportunity came – I knew I had to dunk it. It felt good.”
The third member of the 2020 first-round draft haul by Weaver, Saddiq Bey, had a relatively quiet night for him but with one loud footnote. He finished with 10 points, but the last of his three 3-pointers – extended his streak of games played with at least one made triple to 47, third-longest active streak in the NBA – allowed him to go past Allan Houston’s franchise record of 191 triples in a season set 26 years ago.
And the rookie around whom so much of the optimism for their future is centered, Cade Cunningham, also had a remarkable achievement. In 35 minutes, Cunningham was a plus-43 – the most by a Pistons player since April 17, 2012.
“I don’t know that I’ve had anybody here that had a 43,” Casey said. “That’s impressive on his part because that means he’s defending and contributing on the offensive end.”
They all did, really. When there was blood in the water, the Pistons didn’t flinch this time. It’s a trait that would make their championship predecessors beam with pride.