New York — The Pistons have been hampered by injuries and in the process, they’ve had to find new combinations and rotations to try to get things done.
With leading scorer Jerami Grant sidelined following thumb surgery last week and starting guard Killian out because of a non-COVID illness, they had to make more changes to the lineup.
The bench gave them a boost in the second half, but a first-half lull dropped them into a double-digit deficit. They spent the rest of the game trying to dig out of the hole before falling to the New York Knicks, 105-91, on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden.
In the first half, the Pistons (5-25) looked to be playing with the familiar formula of getting down early and not playing well enough to stay close in the second half.
This time, they were competitive, with a big boost from the bench, cutting what was a 22-point lead early in the third quarter down to five with just under nine minutes left in the game. They just didn’t have the finishing push to close out the final stretch.
Down the stretch, the Knicks (14-17) used a 12-2 run to create a cushion and take the victory, ending their five-game home losing streak.
Saben Lee had 16 points, Cory Joseph 15 points, Saddiq Bey 15 points and seven rebounds and Cade Cunningham seven points, nine rebounds and eight assists for the Pistons, who next play in Miami on Thursday.
The Knicks were without six starters because of COVID protocols and Derrick Rose (ankle) didn’t play. Pistons coach Dwane Casey missed the game because of personal reasons, not related to COVID, and Killian Hayes missed the game because of a non-COVID illness.
“We fought hard, but it’s still disappointing coming out with a loss,” said Lee, who was one point off his season high in scoring. “We did some good things, chipped away at the lead and just continued to build off of certain things going into our next game.”
The Knicks had their biggest lead, 59-37, at the 10:06 mark of the third quarter, after an 11-0 start. Evan Fournier (22 points) opened with a jumper and Mitchell Robinson (17 points and 14 rebounds) added a putback. Following two free throws by Julius Randle (21 points and 11 rebounds), Kemba Walker hit a jumper and Fournier added a 3-pointer to push the margin to 22.
Bey ended the run with a 3-pointer, starting a 16-6 spurt for the Pistons, with a drive and 3-pointer by Joseph and a three-point play by Isaiah Stewart (nine points and 11 rebounds). The Pistons got within 65-53, but the Knicks had another run, with a 3-pointer by Walker (21 points, eight rebounds and five assists), including a jumper by Randle.
The Pistons had another push, with Lee and Trey Lyles leading the way. Lee scored on two straight drives and Lyles (13 points) made a pair of free throws, scored on a putback and hit a 3-pointer. Lee and Lyles combined for 18 straight Pistons points, with a closing 3-pointer and a basket by Lyles getting the Pistons within 80-69 entering the fourth quarter.
Lyles scored on a drive to get the lead down to single digits, but Wayne Selden hit a 3-pointer. Hamidou Diallo (10 points, six rebounds and five steals) scored on a dunk off a pass from Lee, but the Knicks didn’t relent, with a jumper by Walker.
The Pistons’ last push came in the next two minutes, with two free throws by Lyles, another by Rodney McGruder and a drive by Lee to get within 85-78. Selden made one of two free throws and Lee completed a three-point play, off an alley-oop pass in transition from Frank Jackson, and he was fouled.
Lee made the free throw and the Pistons were within five with 8:55 left, but the Knicks had their decisive run to finish the game, finishing on a 19-10 run the rest of the way.
With Hayes out, Joseph moved to the starting lineup, which juggled the reserve unit, putting Lee in a position to have more minutes, but it gave him the opportunity to build some chemistry with Lyles.
“It’s like a mix-and-match every night because you’re just trying to search for a combination that will get it going offensively a little bit,” acting coach Rex Kalamian said.
“Coach Casey obviously has a rotation that we try to stick with and sometimes through injury or through foul trouble, we have to find new rotations and new combinations that’ll work.
“For us tonight, it seemed like the Trey Lyles and Saben Lee combination really worked for a little while, and even the other three guys were feeding into and they had the great spacing, and they were helping out a lot.
“It’s just one of those things where you’ve got to just keep searching sometimes and keep rotating guys in and out, and that’s what I tried to do a little bit in the fourth quarter, trying to get the combination that worked.”