Detroit Pistons’ G League players get ‘baptism by fire’ against Celtics

Detroit Free Press

One of coach Dwane Casey’s primary post-All Star break goals for the Detroit Pistons has been to get an extended look as the young players — particularly the Motor City Cruise players who haven’t spent much time in the rotation this season. A slew of injuries on the roster has made that task easier.

The Pistons were severely shorthanded during their 114-103 loss to the Boston Celtics on Friday night. Frank Jackson missed his 10th game since Feb. 14 with a bilateral lumbar spine spasm. Isaiah Stewart (right knee bone bruise) and Killian Hayes (right abductor contusion) missed their second-straight games, and Hamidou Diallo (left finger sprain) and Rodney McGruder (left hamstring strain) also sat out. Down five rotation players, Casey had to make multiple lineup changes.

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Saben Lee and Isaiah Livers both checked in Friday during the first quarter, and two-way forward Jamorko Pickett — who hadn’t played with the Pistons since Jan. 1 — started the second. The Celtics have emerged as one of the Eastern Conference’s best teams in the last six weeks and Jayson Tatum has been one of the NBA’s most prolific scorers. The game gave those players a prime opportunity to prove that they can contribute.

“Baptism by fire, because you’re going against one of the hottest teams in the league with this team, one of the hottest players with (Jayson) Tatum,” Casey said before the game. “He’s playing, and I’ve been in this league a long time as well, offensively (well) as any player I’ve seen in the last three or four games, shooting the ball well against double-teams, great players, great defenders. So it’s a good test for them, and hopefully they learn from it and grow from it and come in ready to compete.”

Friday was Livers’ seventh straight game in Casey’s rotation following his rehab from a stress fracture in his right foot. In that span, he has shown flashes of the two-way ability that made him a four-year standout at Michigan. His best outing came Monday in a win over the Atlanta Hawks, as he knocked down three of six 3-point attempts and played all but the final second of the fourth quarter.

Livers was quieter against the Celtics, going scoreless in about 14 minutes. But he made several good defensive rotations and grabbed a pair of contested rebounds. He’ll continue to earn opportunities with 15 games left.

“Main thing with him, the young man has been out for a while with his broken foot, and eased him back in with the Cruise and easing him back in with us,” Casey said. “He’s passing the test with flying colors. He gives us something that we need desperately — the shooting, the IQ, the size, the disposition. And he’s a competitor. He’s tough and competes. He talks. He does a lot of things that you want young players to do in our league.”

Pickett might’ve been the best of the three against the Celtics, largely thanks to a three-minute spurt at the beginning of the second quarter. He knocked down two 3-pointers and made a layup following an offensive rebound, and exchanged buckets with Tatum while matching up against him defensively.

Pickett, who signed a two-way contract with the Pistons last summer after a strong showing in Vegas Summer League play, has spent most of the season with the Cruise in the G League. Friday was only his seventh game in a Pistons uniform, and one of the few times this season he played non-garbage time minutes.

Livers, Pickett and Lee started the fourth quarter alongside Saddiq Bey and Kelly Olynyk, and that’s when the tide turned in Boston’s favor. The lineup committed three turnovers in the opening 2:16 to power an 11-0 Celtics run that led to a 99-90 lead. Casey brought the starters back, but the Pistons couldn’t find a rhythm. They missed their first 13 shots of the quarter before Bey broke the streak with 30 seconds remaining. By that point, the game was firmly out of reach.

It’s unclear when the Pistons will get some of their rotation players back, but the game ended up being the “baptism by fire” Casey alluded to during his pregame press conference. There were positives, but it’s a learning experience for Detroit’s group of G Leaguers.

“We’ve got to understand the fourth quarter is totally different, and we had to give guys a rest,” Casey said. “Starting the fourth, I think we had Pickett and Livers and our G League group in there. That’s when they made the run, got the confidence and then we had to get our starters back in to hold the tide. Just couldn’t get it going. But I like a lot of the stuff we did, especially in the first three quarters. But again, it’s a four-quarter game and we have to make sure we extend our good play.”

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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