Even without the steadying presence that comes with having two veterans in the rotation, the Detroit Pistons likely would’ve gone down to the wire with the Memphis Grizzlies on Thursday. Memphis committed numerous mistakes down the stretch in the fourth quarter that enabled the Pistons (20-47) to pull away with a decisive 111-97 victory at Little Caesars Arena.
But from the opening quarter, it was clear the Pistons are a better, more relaxed team when the game isn’t entirely left up to the young players.
Wayne Ellington and Cory Joseph each returned from a four-game absence Thursday, and led the Pistons in scoring with 18 points each to help them snap a four-game losing streak. Joseph also had 11 assists.
FADE FOR CADE: Where Pistons rank in 2021 NBA draft lottery standings
The Pistons have the NBA’s second-worst record, but they’re sticking to the plan they set last offseason: Competing every night to build a winning culture. That has remained the plan during the past two weeks, with the Pistons sitting veterans and letting young players receive the bulk of the minutes.
After a string of losses, the team needed a spirit-lifting win, Pistons coach Dwane Casey said.
“We needed it,” he said. “We were teetering and our guys were kinda hanging their head, losing confidence a little bit. We understand that we’re building and rebuilding. But you’ve got to compete to win each and every night.”
Detroit’s youth movement came to a partial halt against the Grizzlies, with Hamidou Diallo missing the game due to personal reasons and Killian Hayes also sitting out due to illness. A day earlier, Joseph and Ellington were listed out for the game, but were activated Thursday.
Most of the veterans, including leading scorer Jerami Grant and starting center Mason Plumlee, remained out. It didn’t matter — Ellington and Joseph gave Detroit the extra energy it previously lacked.
“It’s not like we’re playing all of our old guys,” Casey said. “We had to play Cory, we had to play Wayne because of Hami and Josh being out. We needed that to continue our confidence and have a continuation of building our culture and believing in what we’re doing and what we’re selling. That’s what happened tonight.”
Joseph had a strong first quarter to help the Pistons overcome an early seven-point deficit, scoring or assisting on their final 10 points to narrow the deficit to one going into the second quarter. He finished the first period with 10 points and six assists. Joseph also helped the Pistons close the game, scoring or assisting on 11 points in the final four minutes and nine seconds of the fourth quarter.
Ellington had his best game since March, finishing with his highest scoring total and made 3-pointers since he scored 25 points with eight 3s against the Toronto Raptors on March 3. He hit six of his 10 attempts from 3 against the Grizzlies.
The Pistons received significant help from Memphis, too. With 5:48 to play, Dillon Brooks fouled Frank Jackson during a 3-point attempt. Jackson drained all three free throws to extend the lead to five. With less than four minutes, Jackson intercepted a bad pass from Kyle Anderson and was fouled in transition, making both free throws to push the lead to 99-90.
With under a minute to play, Sekou Doumbouya stole another Anderson pass and finished a transition dunk for an 11-point lead.
The win gave some Pistons fans anxiety, even though they still have the second-best lottery odds entering Friday. With five games left, there’s time for more wins, which would lower their chances in the lottery. But the Pistons aren’t concerned about that — winning is the goal, and Casey was pleased with the lift they got from Ellington and Joseph.
“Those young players, if you’re not careful they will lose hope and lose their confidence, and that’s something that the veteran guys came in tonight and gave the young players the confidence and the hope and the understanding of what it takes to win,” Casey said. “You can’t give it to young players. You wish you could go out there and help them and do it, but the only way they learn how to do it is to go through it, and we did some good things tonight just with their leadership and some of their guidance on the floor.”