What’s fueling Detroit Pistons’ surge? Growth and improved synergy from their big three

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Pistons controlled most of the game. Yet, the two biggest plays of the night occurred in the final 15 seconds.

With 14 seconds to play, Saddiq Bey drove into the paint as three Toronto Raptors defenders collapsed on him. He finished a tough layup in the middle of traffic to extend Detroit’s lead to 108-105. And with five seconds left, Cade Cunningham clinched the win by blocking a layup attempt by Gary Trent Jr.

The Pistons pulled off a close win on the road Thursday, defeating the Raptors, 108-106. It was the type of game they might’ve lost two months ago. They nearly lost on Thursday.

Detroit led by 18 with about four minutes to play in the third quarter and held the lead for most of the first half. But the game grew chippy and emotional as it went on, and it played in Toronto’s favor. Raptors coach Nick Nurse was ejected with two minutes left in the third quarter after arguing a call with an official, and the energy appeared to fuel the Raptors’ crowd.

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The two teams combined for 41 free throws in the second half, and Toronto had a 16-to-6 free throw advantage in the fourth quarter. The Raptors used a 16-4 run to cut the deficit to six with 8:30 left in the fourth, and reduced the deficit to one with 37.7 seconds left.

It’s a testament to the Pistons’ growth this season that they were able to hang onto the win. Detroit has won four of its last six games and is 11-19 in 2022 after entering the new year with a 5-28 record. Three of those recent wins have come on the road, and all four are against teams in playoff or play-in tournament position. The Pistons have also won six straight over the Raptors.

“We had to control our emotions down the stretch,” head coach Dwane Casey said after the win. “You can’t let calls or non-calls or missed shots evaporate your energy, and it was a great lesson for us. Win, lose or draw the game, there was a great lesson on, ‘OK, contain yourself, play within yourself, don’t let your emotions get the best of you no matter what’s happening.’ And going down the road for our young guys, this is going to be a huge help.”

The first half of Detroit’s season was characterized by blown leads and injury struggles. Jerami Grant and Kelly Olynyk missed significant time, and youthful mistakes cost the Pistons several games they should’ve won. They lost 14 consecutive games in November and December, tying a franchise record, and lost eight straight  to open February. One December stretch featured losses to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Washington Wizards and New Orleans Pelicans over a six-day span despite leading each game by double digits.

Couple that with the Pistons’ 20-52 record from the 2020-21 season, and it’s clear that this core is well acquainted with losing. But it’s that familiar feeling that’s powering their current run, Bey said Thursday.

Bey, Cade Cunningham and Jerami Grant have settled in as Detroit’s top options during the past two weeks. While the Pistons haven’t gotten consistent contributions from a banged-up bench that’s missing Marvin Bagley Jr. and Frank Jackson, they’re finally enjoying continued health from their starting five.

Bey is averaging 19.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.5 turnovers on 46.9/36.1/87.1 shooting splits over his past eight games. Cunningham is averaging 20.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 5.2 assists in his past six games. And Thursday was Grant’s third consecutive game with 26 points, while shooting better than 50% in each.

“We’ve had those experiences early on, me and (Isaiah Stewart) and Killian (Hayes) had it last year, and then Cade obviously has been a part of that experience this year,” Bey said. “Those early games, those early failures that we had just taught us a lot. Now, down the stretch, we know just to play to win, not play to not lose. Just being out there having those experiences, having those reps early on is helping us now.

“Just a different energy. I think we know each other, now. We’re healthier than we were in the past, which is a blessing. We’ve got a lot of reps with each other, we know each other’s games, we’ve found our continuity as far as how we want to get each other the ball and just locking in on the defensive end, which I think has helped us. We have a good rhythm because we know each other now.”

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

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