MILWAUKEE — Judging solely from their performance against the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks on Monday, one probably wouldn’t have guessed the Detroit Pistons were coming off of a month filled with adversity.
They had eight players — including their first overall pick, Cade Cunningham — enter health and safety protocols from Dec. 22 until Dec. 26. A ninth player, Frank Jackson, sprained his ankle during the second quarter of last Wednesday’s game against the New York Knicks.
On Dec. 10, the Pistons lost their best player, Jerami Grant, to a thumb injury that’ll keep him out until the last week of January.
Detroit lost 14 consecutive games from Nov. 19 until Dec. 18, one game shy of setting a franchise record. Then they lost four more games after snapping that streak. With their rotation completely battered, they were down to two players from their main roster in Saddiq Bey, Hamidou Diallo and Luka Garza against the Knicks last Saturday. They were flanked by eight G League players on 10-day contracts, signed using the NBA’s COVID 19-related hardship waiver.
None of that mattered Monday at Fiserv Forum. The Pistons saw six players exit health and safety protocols over the weekend, and all six re-joined the team in time for their road game against the Bucks. And after Bey’s game-winning shot allowed them to pull off an overtime win over the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday, the near-full strength Pistons followed that with their best performance of the season from top-to-bottom.
The Pistons (7-28) handily beat the contending Bucks (25-14) in their own arena, 115-106. They did it without the injured Grant or Kelly Olynyk, and without two other key rotation players as Cory Joseph and Isaiah Stewart are still in protocols. They did it after losing their previous 16 games against the Bucks, including a sweep in the first round of the 2019 playoffs. They did it with two G League players on 10-day contracts — Justin Robinson and Micah Potter — still in the rotation.
They’ve played spurts of good basketball this season, but Monday was their most complete effort. And it happened against the 2021 NBA champions.
“It just shows us that we can play with anybody no matter who we have on the floor,” Josh Jackson said after the game. “Guys are injured, guys are out with COVID. I’ve always felt like no matter who we put out there, there’s a way to win a game. You just gotta play together and play hard. We did those things tonight.”
Several players stepped up on Monday. Saddiq Bey, who has been on a tear in recent weeks, had his best night as a pro with a career-high 34 points, career-high eight 3-pointers, eight rebounds and four assists. He is averaging 25 points, 8.6 rebounds and 3.2 assists over his past nine games.
Jackson had his best game of the season with 24 points, tying his career-high with five 3-pointers. Cunningham added 19 points and seven assists. Hamidou Diallo (11 points, nine rebounds, five assists) and Trey Lyles (11 points, seven rebounds) chipped in as well.
They also got a good performance from Robinson, who signed a 10-day contract on Dec. 28. He only made one of his six shots, but was good defensively and played the entire fourth quarter.
It was a win that, in some ways, felt overdue. Coach Dwane Casey has often preached the Pistons are making strides behind-the-scenes that haven’t been reflected in their record. They’ve had to withstand depth issues with an inexperienced roster. A handful of their losses this season have been after holding double-digit leads.
The Pistons took advantage of a Bucks team that just couldn’t hit an outside shot. Milwaukee shot 23.9% (11-for-46) from 3. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday combined for 60 points, but the rest of the roster shot a combined 17-for-52. The Pistons, on the other had, had one of their best offensive nights of the year. They tied a season-high with 18 3s and dished 31 assists — surpassing the 30 assist threshold for only the second time this season.
The Pistons are 2-0 in 2022, and are confident they can keep the positive momentum going.
“This was a big win for us,” Cunningham said after playing 37 minutes. “Breath of fresh air for sure. Everybody can cool out and just play their game and not think so much. Because winning, when you’re losing, all the other stuff is kinda amplified, all the problems that you’re having. When you can find ways to win and stick together through tough games and pull out a victory, everything else you can work through a lot easier with a clear mind. I think we have a clean mind now, and we’re just ready to keep moving forward and try to build on it.”