NEW YORK — The Detroit Pistons once again had a depleted roster Tuesday night. So assistant coach Rex Kalamian, filling in for head coach Dwane Casey, had to get creative.
Killian Hayes was a late scratch for the Pistons’ road match against the New York Knicks with a non-COVID illness. So they went with their 10th unique starting lineup this season, with Cory Joseph alongside Cade Cunningham, Saddiq Bey, Hamidou Diallo and Isaiah Stewart.
By the end of the first quarter, though, a fully different lineup was on the floor for Detroit. To counter New York’s talented rotation of bigs, Kalamian went big by playing Trey Lyles and Luka Garza at power forward and center, respectively. They were flanked by Saben Lee, Frank Jackson and Rodney McGruder. When that didn’t work, Kalamian re-adjusted by going small once again. Garza checked out, and Bey checked in at power forward.
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Detroit finally found a lineup that worked in the third quarter, and it was a funky one. Lee and Lyles were able to get some momentum going, helping the Pistons cut a 22-point deficit to nine points late in the quarter. That duo, along with Jackson, McGruder and Diallo, were competitive with the Knicks in the fourth quarter and cut the deficit to five before New York clamped down and put the game away.
With Jerami Grant and Kelly Olynyk out, Detroit hasn’t had the luxury of continuity. They’ve been forced to tinker from game to game. Joseph sat for three straight games before re-entering the lineup during Sunday’s win over the Miami Heat. Josh Jackson has sat for three of the past four games after establishing himself as a rotation piece. Garza is getting early looks after extended time at the end of the bench. More changes will come.
Grant and Olynyk will eventually return, as will Hayes. But until the Pistons get fully healthy, they’ll have to remain flexible to compete.
“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,” Kalamian said after the 105-91 loss on Tuesday. “Coach Casey obviously has a rotation that we try to stick with. 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-Saben Lee combination really worked for a little while. And even the other three guys, they were feeding into it. They had great spacing, and they were helping out a lot. It’s just one of those things that you gotta keep searching sometimes, keep rotating guys in and out. That’s what I tried to do in the fourth quarter, get combinations to work.”
Due to the roster’s construction, the Pistons play small more often than not. Diallo, who finished with 10 points, six rebounds and five steals against the Knicks, is carving out a niche as an energetic, undersized power forward. Lyles has been playing out of position as a center. Bey can fill in at the four when Lyles is at the five and Diallo is on the bench. The coaching staff doesn’t have many other options. Garza can score, but is a defensive liability. Stewart can’t play all 48 minutes.
Olynyk could be nearing a return; Friday marks six weeks since he sprained his left knee, approximately the milestone for re-evaluation. Olynyk’s return would allow Lyles to return to power forward while giving the Pistons additional size. Their lack thereof was evident against the Knicks, as Mitchell Robinson feasted as a lob and putback threat, finishing with 17 points and 14 rebounds.
The Pistons aren’t going to find a lineup that checks every box. They simply don’t have the size to slow down players such as Robinson. But they’re finding success with players in unfamiliar roles. Until they get their injured players back, it’ll have to do.
“I think small is good for us,” Kalamian said. “We know how to play it. Since Jerami has been out, we’ve been playing small with that four position, and seems to work for us. We’re better off staying with what’s working for us. I’ll talk to coach Casey tonight and see what he feels about some of the stuff.”
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