If everything had followed the blueprint, Killian Hayes would have gone through one of these experiences much earlier in the season.
The Detroit Pistons‘ point guard had a large chunk of his rookie year stripped away from him due to a hip injury, but coach Dwane Casey rode Hayes down the stretch of a seemingly secure win over the depleted Los Angeles Clippers.
There was plenty of blame to go around after the Pistons squandered an 11-point lead in the final five minutes to a Clippers team missing stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, among others.
[ Last day to save! Become a Free Press subscriber for just $1 for 6 months. Sign up here! ]
The hope is once Hayes gets used to running the show during pivotal possessions, the Pistons won’t give away games as they did Wednesday, when they gift-wrapped a 100-98 win to the Clippers at Little Caesars Arena.
Casey could have put the ball in the experienced hands of Cory Joseph to protect the lead and taken Hayes out of the pressure cooker. That would have only delayed the painstaking process of turning Hayes into a battle-tested product.
So Hayes played all but four seconds of the fourth quarter.
PISTONS MAILBAG: Not getting a top-5 draft pick wouldn’t be the end of the world
“That’s why I did it,” Casey said postgame. “That’s what this year is about, as much as we hate losing, I hate losing. But he had a good run going. For him to get in those situations down the road is going to be invaluable.”
There were a lot of good things happening with Hayes at the point during the first seven minutes of the quarter. He racked up four assists in the first five-plus minutes, then drained a pull-up jumper.
When Jerami Grant followed with the last of his 28 points, a 10-foot make, the Pistons’ lead was 93-82 with 4:51 to go.
Once Frank Jackson airballed a 3-pointer for the second time in the game, the Pistons unraveled. Hayes committed a turnover and missed a couple of shots.
Turnovers by Grant and Saddiq Bey, the latter on an inbounds pass, in the final minute sealed their doom, and fittingly, ex-Piston Reggie Jackson scored the winning basket, rocking his dribble and firing in a 20-footer over Hayes with 2.8 seconds left.
“They (his teammates) made me feel even more confident than I did already,” Jackson said.
Hayes still had a chance to salvage the game but his last-second 3-point try bounced off the front rim. He finished with eight points, six assists and one turnover in 25 minutes, but shot 1-for-6 in the fourth quarter.
“He earned to stay out there,” Casey said. “He made some nice plays to get to that point. He understands now what you have to do defensively as well as offensively in those tight situations. It’s a great experience for him.”
Those lessons will be reiterated during a film session Thursday.
For Jackson, the victory was especially sweet. He looks back at his time in Detroit fondly, though the Pistons couldn’t break the cycle of mediocrity when he was their main distributor.
He pulled off his uniform and handed it to a fan in the stands as he exited the court. Then he embraced another ex-Piston, backcourt partner Luke Kennard.
They represent the Pistons’ uneasy recent past, when they never quite turned into real contenders until the front office finally hit the reset button.
For the Pistons to achieve greater heights, they need Hayes to start hitting the right buttons in crunch time.
“We haven’t done a good job in the last two or three games of closing quarters, and same thing tonight,” Casey said. “Somehow, we’ve got to find the focus, the intensity to close quarters without turning it over.”