The Detroit Pistons own the NBA’s third-worst record at 21-56. But for six weeks, they’ve been close to average.
Since beating the Boston Celtics in the final game before the All-Star Game, the Pistons are 9-12 and have a net rating of minus-0.5 — 17th in the NBA. Of the teams during that span with negative plus-minus ratings, the Pistons have the highest. They’re a rebuilding team figuring out, game by game, what it takes to be good in the NBA. Thursday was an example of what the good version of this Pistons team looks like.
They used a 27-8 fourth-quarter run to dismantle the Philadelphia 76ers at Little Caesars Arena, 102-94. The Pistons have often struggled to put together complete performances this season, but not on Thursday. They kept pace with a Sixers team — which entered Thursday tied for the third-best record in the East — led by MVP candidate Joel Embiid and perennial All-Star James Harden, and found a way to deliver the finishing blows in the closing minutes. Detroit took its first lead of the game with a little over six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and didn’t trail again in the final 5:41.
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Embiid finished with 37 points and 15 rebounds, and Harden added 18 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. It wasn’t enough, even though the Pistons were without Jerami Grant for the third game in a row and lost Marvin Bagley III in the third quarter with a left hip flexor strain. The Pistons are growing up, and they’re optimistic the development they’ve shown since All-Star weekend will carry over into the summer and next season.
“Win, lose or draw, the thing is we didn’t have any big lulls throughout the game,” Pistons head coach Dwane Casey said. “We met their intensity. That was good. Just the consistent production all through all four quarters.”
All four of Detroit’s first-round picks under general manager Troy Weaver delivered big performances. It started with Cade Cunningham, who has been on a tear during Detroit’s recent run of improved play. He’s averaging 22.4 points, 6.6 assists and 5.9 rebounds in the second half while shooting 47.2% overall and 29.2% from 3. His outside shooting has slumped, but his overall scoring efficiency is up. He’s playing with the pace of a star and has established himself as the Pistons’ leader.
He finished Thursday with 27 points (on 60% shooting), six assists and four steals. But his impact on the game began before the opening tip.
“He’s our leader,” said Isaiah Livers, who returned from concussion protocol and hit three of four 3-point attempts. “The first thing he says when we get in the huddle before the tip ball is, ‘Don’t worry about missed shots, shots are going to fall. We gotta play defense. No matter what’s going on on the offensive end, we have to do our job on the defensive end. And we did that tonight.”
Defense was a key reason why the Pistons prevailed despite shooting 10-for-35 beyond the arc and getting outscored at the free throw line by 15. Embiid got his points, but Harden shot just 4-for-15 overall and 2-for-9 from 3. Isaiah Stewart has proven himself as a capable perimeter defender on switches, and he did an admirable job of harassing Harden.
“Early in the games, you see in the history of basketball, you have a center come up to the screen to get a switch right,” said Saddiq Bey, who scored 10 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter. “Now, it’s just developing and evolving how they want to pick a certain mismatch out. So, they try (Isaiah Stewart) at first, but analytically he’s a great iso defender. So early in the game, it’s just a natural for the big to come set a screen, but once they see him, he does a great job with moving his feet, and with physicality. So, that’s just great for us to see on the defensive end.”
Philadelphia shot 20 free throws in the first half, but just eight in the second. The Pistons adjusted at halftime, and the Sixers were unable to score enough to make up for the lack of free throws. They led by as many as eight points in the first half, but Detroit built a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter. The Pistons also forced 11 steals, which led to 17 transition points, with more steals than turnovers (nine).
“I’m very happy the way we fought,” Livers said. “First half was a tight game. They shot a lot of free throws, so that was a good sign. Come out in the second half, keep our hands up, force misses, force turnovers and we executed for sure today.”
Killian Hayes, who has improved his play over the last month, was a team-high plus-16 for the game and finished with 10 points and three steals on 5-for-8 shooting. What was impressive about Hayes’ performance wasn’t his point total, but the way he scored. He’s taking more shots in the paint and finishing a higher percentage of them compared to his rookie season, and Thursday featured several difficult finishes he probably wouldn’t have made earlier in the season.
“He’s just growing,” Casey said. “I’m so proud of him the way he continues to grow. Play with that little swag.
“His vision, the way he sees the floor, is very uncanny. He’s a great complement to Cade, and neither one of them are finished products. They’re young pups.”
Things are starting to click for the Pistons, and they have four games left before closing the season against the Sixers in Philadelphia on April 10.