LOS ANGELES — It’s been a week since Isaiah Stewart’s now-infamous altercation with LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Detroit Pistons‘ second-year center is ready to move on.
Before he can do that, he’ll have to face The King on his own court.
The Pistons will face the Lakers for the second and final time this season on Sunday (9:30 p.m., Bally Sports Detroit). It’ll be a contest between a young team in its second year of a rebuild, and a grizzled, veteran squad hunting for its second championship in three years. It won’t be a blip on the NBA calendar, despite the mismatched timelines between the two teams. The game will have national interest, and the Staples Center crowd will be animated.
It’s an unfortunate reality for Stewart. The image of him charging at James multiple times, blood flowing down his face, after James punched him above his right eye following a free throw was played and replayed on social media and every notable talk sports show. For most casual NBA fans, it was their introduction to the Pistons big man.
Despite his role in escalating the situation, the incident doesn’t reflect who Stewart is behind-the-scenes. He’s beloved by the coaching staff and his teammates. He’s mild-mannered and polite in interviews. And his energy and hustle on the floor has made him a fan favorite.
“He’s one of the best dudes I know,” Frank Jackson said. “He plays so hard and he’s a joy to be around.”
Regardless of all of the fracas and misplaced comparisons to the Malice at the Palace, Stewart is the only person who was injured in the almost-brawl. He needed stitches the close the wound above his eye. And now the onus is on Stewart to prove that he’s not what the cameras showed last Sunday.
“I watched the film,” Stewart said after Friday’s 107-96 loss to the Clippers — his first game back after serving a two-game suspension. “Me personally, I didn’t feel like it was an accident. But it’s my last time addressing it. My main focus right now is on my team and my teammates, getting back to playing basketball. I’m not going to let that define who I am. We’re going to let that what Detroit drafted me for define who I am and the way I play basketball.”
This past week has illustrated just how important Stewart is to the Pistons. He’s the best rebounder, shot-blocker and rim protector on the roster by a significant margin. No one was able to replace what he brings. His absence was felt.
After he and James both exited last Sunday’s game, the Pistons increased their lead to 17. But they no longer had an answer for Anthony Davis, who took over in the second half. He scored 21 points on 7-for-9 shooting and blocked four shots in the final two quarters to help the Lakers pull off a come-from-behind, 121-116 victory at Little Caesars Arena.
The Pistons were shorthanded against the Miami Heat on Tuesday and were unable to hold onto a 12-point lead. They couldn’t match the Milwaukee Bucks’ size on Wednesday, and Giannis Antetokounmpo and Bobby Portis imposed their will.
All of those teams are contending for a title. There’s no guarantee that the Pistons would’ve won any of them, even with Stewart in tow. But their margin for error is thin. Kelly Olynyk will miss another month with a left knee sprain. Luka Garza, a 2021 second-round pick, can provide shooting but doesn’t have Stewart’s defensive versatility. Trey Lyles and Jerami Grant are natural power forwards, and were forced to play out of position this past week.
“We missed his energy and his toughness inside,” Casey said. “We missed the screening. I thought Luka did a good job, and Trey, for what he brings to the table, does a good job at that position. I thought Trey had one of his best nights against Milwaukee, which was difficult to do, but did a good job of staying in front of Antetokounmpo. But what got us is rebounding, and that’s what Isaiah brings to the table. His presence in the paint, his toughness in the paint, we did miss that.”
In Stewart’s absence, Casey has had to come to his defense multiple times. He likely will have to one more time on Sunday, in front of Lakers media. The Pistons know who Stewart really is. Stewart knows who he really is. And it’s time for him to prove how positive an asset he is for the franchise — not just Sunday, but beyond.
“It was a very unfortunate situation,” Casey said. “Isaiah is nowhere near what you saw in the video. I think if you put nine men in that situation, they would’ve reacted, right, wrong or indifferent, in the same manner. Maybe not as extended as Isaiah took it, which was unfortunate. That situation is nowhere near a reflection of who he is. I don’t think LeBron’s a dirty player. I think it’s an unfortunate situation for both men, but he reacted, and he was remorseful for it.
“Great kid. The young man is the kind of kid you want to take home with your family. That was not a portrait of who he is as a man. Love him, he’s a part of our family. For us, that’s in the rearview mirror.”
Contact Omari Sankofa II at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Pistons content. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.