Detroit — Pistons coach Dwane Casey has extolled the benefits of having veterans on the roster who can lead by example and be ready at a moment’s notice. That includes coming back after missing a couple of games and remaining at a top level.
Wayne Ellington and Cory Joseph hadn’t played in the last four games, but they each returned to the lineup like they never left.
Ellington sparked a second-quarter surge that helped the Pistons build on their slim lead and Joseph helped the young starting unit fill in the gaps the rest of the way in a surprising 111-97 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies on Thursday night at Little Caesars Arena.
The win ended the four-game losing streak for the Pistons (20-47), who played their third game of a hectic week that includes five games in seven days. They finish with a back-to-back Saturday at Philadelphia and Sunday hosting the Chicago Bulls.
Ellington finished with 18 points, going 6 of 10 on 3-pointers, and Joseph added 18 points and 11 assists. All five Pistons starters scored in double figures, including Isaiah Stewart’s 15 points and seven rebounds and Sekou Doumbouya adding 14 points and six rebounds.
“We’re out of the playoff picture, but we’re playing to build a culture and develop,” Casey said. “When guys step up like Cory and Wayne … they give them the confidence and hope.”
The Pistons led, 78-70, entering the fourth quarter but Jaren Jackson Jr. kept the Grizzlies close with a 3-pointer. Jahlil Okafor (13 points and five rebounds) and Saben Lee added back-to-back baskets and John Konchar (11 points) answered with a lay-in.
Okafor scored again, but the Grizzlies got close with a 9-3 surge, including a three-point play by Brandon Clarke and consecutive drives by Ja Morant (20 points and five assists) to get within three. Okafor added another basket to end the spurt and a dunk on the next possession after a Clarke 3-pointer to keep the lead at four.
The Grizzlies stayed within range until an 8-1 run by the Pistons stretched the lead to nine, but Jonas Valanciunas (19 points and 16 rebounds) scored on a hook and Dillon Brooks on a drive to make it a 99-94 deficit.
Doumbouya scored on a dunk and Bey hit a 3-pointer to make it a 10-point lead with 2:11 remaining, and the Pistons were able to hold on in the final minutes.
The Pistons had been struggling from 3-point range, but having Ellington back in the lineup — even coming off the bench — was a welcome addition. Casey said the Pistons also needed the vets because Killian Hayes (non-COVID illness) and Hamidou Diallo (personal) were out of the lineup.
“It was great having (the veterans) back out there,” Stewart said. “It was definitely a different feeling with two vets out there.”
The loss was costly for the Grizzlies (33-33), who are in the thick of the playoff race in the Western Conference. Memphis entered the game in eighth place, a half-game ahead of the Golden State Warriors.
Memphis was sluggish and made too many mistakes (15 turnovers for 20 Pistons points) to overcome. Even with the Pistons’ second unit playing a big chunk early in the fourth quarter, the Grizzlies fell further behind and couldn’t whittle down the lead.
The Pistons took advantage and added a win that could give them a final boost heading into the final five games of the season.
“We needed it; we were teetering, and guys were hanging their heads with (no) confidence,” Casey said.