Rookie forward Isaiah Livers has become the X-factor for these young and rising Detroit Pistons.
The talented squad has displayed plenty of promise, but have come up short late in many fourth quarters. That’s reflected in the 21-56 record they bring into Friday night’s game in Oklahoma City. In Tuesday’s game in Brooklyn, the Pistons led by as many as 12 points, but lost by seven points.
Livers returned Thursday night after missing four games with a concussion, and hit three important 3-pointers while playing stellar defense. One of his 3-pointers gave Detroit a 90-87 lead, and it never looked back in the 102-94 victory over Philadelphia at Little Caesars Arena.
The second-round pick from the University of Michigan had career-highs with 16 points, four 3-pointers, six rebounds and 32 minutes at Miami on March 15, but was out one week later.
“If that young man just stays healthy,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey said, “he is going to be a huge plus for us moving forward.”
Livers missed 30 games with a right foot injury and didn’t debut until Dec. 16. It’s taken him a while to find a playing rhythm, but all the film he watched and the way he studied games from the bench accelerated his development.
Now he’s beginning to take off, and Casey knows he can trust Livers at both ends of the court.
“He drew me up some (offensive) plays — I ain’t going to lie,” said Livers. “I was actually caught off guard. But he did. He told me to stay ready. So, I’ve got to do my job.”
With guard Killian Hayes – whom Casey says is essentially a rookie because injuries cost him so much playing time last season – and Livers now both making big contributions off the bench, the Pistons have been turbocharged.
“He plays like a vet,” second-year forward Saddiq Bey said of Livers, “and I think he plays hard defensively, and gives us great versatility on the defensive end.”
Livers’ ability to guard anybody on the court at 6-foot-7 also is key to what the team can do. He even guarded Sixers 7-footer Joel Embiid on Thursday. Livers used position and quick feet to force Embiid into a jump shot that popped off the rim. On the very next possession, Livers tied up Embiid for a jump ball.
Casey was asked about that, and said of Livers: “He’s bigger and stronger than you think he is, and he did a good job when he got switched off on (Embiid) in the low post.”
When that defense on the NBA MVP candidate was brought up, Livers raised his eyebrows before saying, “I can cover anybody.”
Casey also pointed out a steal Livers made in transition and the times he ran Sixers off the 3-point line. On one, Livers stumbled along the baseline before regaining balance and still getting a hand up to thwart a shooter who missed from behind the arc.
Livers also practices the 3-point shot as much as anybody, and has coaches and others rush him with a hand up to simulate game shooting.
“He has versatility offensively, too,” added Bey. “He has great form and is a great shot-maker, and is a really good shooter. So, I’m not surprised to see him working so hard every day. His positive attitude I think helps him, and so it’s good to see.”
After his post-game press conference, Livers opened the back door to see how Bey was doing with his interview.
Bey spotted him and said, “My boy Livers is wearing my Villanova jersey over there. We beat Michigan (in an NCAA Sweet 16 game) and he does a great job. I just told them about you, bro (laughter). Cash, cash money, bro. I respect him for honoring his bet, though.
“It looks great on you, bro. That’s my guy (more laughter).”
Livers wore a Villanova sweat shirt and sweat pants as he walked to the team bus for a late-night flight to Oklahoma City.
“A bet’s a bet,” Livers said with a smile. “Villanova beat us and so that’s the way it went.”
Now the Wolverine and Wildcat are Pistons, part of the core of a growing team that’s hitting its stride with five games remaining. Livers, Bey and many on the team are speaking about the great anticipation they have for getting better this summer and possibly taking a big leap in 2022-23.
That’s because Detroit has found its “hub,” as Casey refers to him, in NBA Rookie of the Year candidate Cade Cunningham.
“He’s clearly, by far, the rookie of the year,” said Livers. “Cade’s our leader. Cade, a rookie, and the first thing he says in our huddle (Thursday night) is: ‘Don’t worry about missed shots. Shots are going to fall. We’ve got to play defense. No matter what’s going on in the offensive end, we’ve got to do our job on the defensive end.'”
And the Pistons finally got over the hump in the fourth quarter, built the lead to 13 on a team with a 46-30 record, and triumphed.
“I’m very happy with the way we played,” said Livers. “We executed through four quarters. We usually execute through three quarters.”
Livers, the X factor, had a big hand in assuring victory this time.
Steve Kornacki is a freelance writer.