Detroit — Rex Kalamian entered the locker room to give his postgame speech after a surprising 126-116 win over the Utah Jazz on Monday night at Little Caesars Arena.
As he neared the center of the locker room, Kalamian clapped, preparing his congratulatory words. The other assistant coaches stopped short, almost as if they knew what was coming next. Some of the players started grabbing water bottles, and before Kalamian could get a word out, the players doused him with water bottles, celebrating his first win as acting head coach.
It was a moment of euphoria, a rarity for a Pistons team that has struggled this season, with only nine wins in the first 39 games.
This one was sweet, though. The Pistons overcame a 22-point first-half deficit and held strong through the final minutes.
“We should be throwing water on you guys, honestly,” Kalamian said, his shirt still soaked. “Your effort, execution, togetherness and spirit, it was amazing. It was so much fun.”
That was the difference for the Pistons, who have had more than their share of double-digit losses, but finally had a chance to revel in a double-digit win over a winning team. The Pistons played one of their best games of the season, with 15 second-half 3-pointers, a new franchise record for threes in a half.
That Kalamian had been working for 28 years as an assistant and finally got a win in the first chair while head coach Dwane Casey was in COVID protocols was a fun time for everyone.
“Yeah, it was a celebration. I’m super happy for him. I’m glad we got to do that for him,” said rookie Cade Cunningham, who had a career-best 29 points. “He means a lot to this team, and he brings a lot of energy for us. He has so much basketball knowledge, so to be able to give him his first win meant a lot to us too.”
There was another first for Kalamian too, as he got more than just the water shower from the players.
“I just said to somebody that it’s the first time I’ve gotten a game ball in 28 years. It’s pretty cool, but I’m very happy to get the win for the players, especially,” Kalamian said in the postgame press conference. “I just can’t say enough good things about how they stuck to it, how they showed resilience throughout the game, and scoring 40 (points) in the third (quarter) and 38 in the fourth.
“Putting back-to-back quarters like that together is pretty cool for them. We didn’t run or do anything that’s out of what we have in our playbook. These are Dwane Casey’s plays and they’re our sets. It’s just that we were able to make threes tonight against a really good team.”
Casey is back in the first chair.
Casey exited the NBA’s health and safety protocols and coached the team in Tuesday night’s matchup in Chicago against the Bulls. On Monday, Casey was placed in COVID protocols after a positive test, but that determination is believed to be a false-positive result, and he was cleared to return.
By NBA guidelines, a person can register two negative tests at least 24 hours apart and exit health and safety protocols. Casey was out for Monday night’s win over the Utah Jazz and assistant coach Rex Kalamian was the acting coach, getting his first win in that role.
The Pistons had their best night from beyond the 3-point line also, making 19, including 15 in the second half. It was a group effort, as they got five each from Cunningham and Saddiq Bey, plus 4-of-4 from Cory Joseph, with three of those coming in the fourth quarter.
Cunningham said that once a few of those shots started to fall, it gave others confidence and that spread around the lineup.
“Shooting the ball is contagious. Once somebody can get going, usually, it rubs off on the rest of the group, so it’s just all about sharing the ball, getting guys the ball in their spots, and getting good looks,” said Cunningham, who finished 5-of-9 on 3-pointers. “That’s all you can ask for, and then the basketball gods will take care of you if you’re doing that.”
The Pistons also had two games with 18 made 3-pointers, in their win against the Milwaukee Bucks on Jan. 3 and in the loss at Miami on Dec. 23.