Kelly Olynyk’s winning jumper was just one sign of the Detroit Pistons’ growth in February

Detroit Free Press

How long ago was the Detroit Pistons‘ most recent victory against the Charlotte Hornets entering Sunday’s game? That win on Oct. 18, 2017, was the franchise’s first game at Little Caesars Arena. Current head coach Dwane Casey was in the midst of his final season with the Toronto Raptors. Current point guards Cade Cunningham and Killian Hayes were 16 — Cunningham by less than a month.

Between then and the Pistons’ 127-126 overtime win in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Sunday, there were 15 consecutive losses to the Hornets. It’s a number that looks like a typo. The streak even included two blowouts this season, by 29 and 22 points on Jan. 5 and Feb. 11, respectively. So yes, the streak was an important part of Sunday’s narrative  — but in the grand scheme of the Pistons’ 2021-22 season, it’s a sidenote.

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Instead, you have to focus on the end of the game, as Kelly Olynyk knocked down his first career game-winner, beating the final buzzer with a midrange jumper that dropped through the net with two-tenths of a second left. The unlikely shot delivered the Pistons’ third win in four games, and their 10th win in two months.

The Pistons, thanks to the return of key veterans such as Olynyk from injuries, look much improved. Sunday’s streak-buster was just another sign of the team starting to figure things out.

The past two weeks brought close wins over the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers, both likely headed to the playoffs. Yes, the Celtics played without Marcus Smart and Robert Williams, and the Cavaliers played without All-Star point guard Darius Garland. But the Pistons have lost to other shorthanded playoff contenders this season.

The Hornets threatened to pull away Sunday, taking a five-point lead with 2:50 left in overtime. But Jerami Grant answered 13 seconds later with a 3-pointer, followed by a layup a little over a minute later to keep the Pistons within a possession.

“I think we got down five in overtime, and a month ago we would’ve probably hung our head and hung our coat at the end of regulation, but we stayed together, stuck together,” Casey said.

Grant and Olynyk — who combined for 46 points, including nine of the Pistons’ 11 points in overtime — have missed significant time this season with injuries and COVID-19. Both have been inconsistent since their returns on Feb. 1 — Olynyk more than Grant — and the Pistons opened the month with eight consecutive losses. But as the two vets found their footing, the Pistons took down the Celtics, Cavaliers and Hornets with second-half rallies.

Grant’s 26 points and Olynyk’s 20 (in his third 20-point game in 24 appearances this season) trailed only the 28 of Saddiq Bey (who also had eight rebounds) on Sunday. But those three weren’t the only Pistons who contributed: Cade Cunningham (19 points, six assists), Isaiah Stewart (seven points, 11 rebounds) and Killian Hayes (six points, seven rebounds and seven assists) all made big plays down the stretch.

Injuries and inexperience have held the Pistons back, but they’re finally getting close to full health. They’re still awaiting the return of Frank Jackson, who was listed as questionable on Sunday but didn’t suit up, from a minor back injury. Marvin Bagley III also missed the game with a left ankle sprain. Otherwise, most of the Pistons’ rotation is intact.

“We’ve done a really good job of being together and pulling rope into the same direction,” said Olynyk, who also had eight rebounds off the bench Sunday. “Sometimes you have a young team, and everybody’s trying to find their way and their niche, their roles and it’s a roller coaster. It’s tough. Sometimes you get to a point where things just start to click. And part of it is getting everybody healthy and getting everybody on the same page, but for us, it’s just about being connected on both ends of the floor.”

Since Jan. 1, the Pistons are 10-18, with more wins than nine other franchises: the Los Angeles Lakers, Washington Wizards, Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks, Sacramento Kings, Indiana Pacers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets and Orlando Magic. After stumbling to five wins through October, November and December combined (in 33 games), the Pistons have tripled their win total with 21 games and six weeks left to play.

The signs of growth were plentiful on Sunday. Cunningham and Stewart succeeded despite their foul trouble. Hayes played one of his most consistent games this season on both ends; he even got a couple of tough buckets inside the arc. Bey had a game-high13 points in the first quarter, and then helped close out the win with seven points in the final 5:40.

“It really makes you feel good to see guys coming together,” Casey said. “We’re not a finished product at all. They still shot 50% from the field. There’s a lot of things we can do better defensively, a lot of things we can do offensively whether it’s spacing, making the right reads. That’s what encouraging, seeing so many different people contribute in different ways.”

Contact Omari Sankofa II at 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.

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