Philadelphia — In the last game of the season, the Pistons weren’t just going to roll over and take a loss.
Though there were implications for their draft position, the Pistons played a tough game down to the wire against the Philadelphia 76ers before falling, 118-106, on Sunday night at Wells Fargo Center in the season finale.
With the loss, the Pistons (23-59) guaranteed themselves the third-worst record in the league, and as a result, they’ll be tied for the best odds (14%) of landing the No. 1 pick in the draft, and they can’t fall lower than the seventh spot.
The draft lottery on May 17 will determine their final position.
Luka Garza had 20 points, 10 rebounds and four assists, Isaiah Livers 14 points and Braxton Key 12 points and five rebounds for the Pistons, who lost six of their last nine games to finish the season.
The focus wasn’t on their record; instead, it was on the progress they made in rebuilding the franchise and developing their young core, including Cade Cunningham, who missed the game because of a hip injury.
“(I liked) the growth we had as a young team, with all of our young players in their first and second year, just watching them grow. A lot of the games didn’t equate to wins, but the growth is there — and it’s going to be evident in the future,” coach Dwane Casey said. “I’m proud of the way the guys stepped up and played close-to-.500 basketball after the All-Star break.
“That’s the momentum we have to go into the summer with. We have a lot of growth to do and work to do with our roster and also the draft, and we’ll see what goes on with that.”
The Sixers (51-31) finished the season at 51-31 and they’ll be the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference, hosting the Toronto Raptors in a first-round playoff series.
The Pistons stayed within single digits early in the fourth quarter, getting to 98-97 with 8:48 remaining after a putback by Garza and a 3-pointer by Jamorko Pickett. The Sixers put the game away with a decisive 12-0 run — with 10 straight points by Paul Reed — during that stretch, including a pair of dunks. That pushed the lead to 112-98, and they cruised the rest of the way.
Shake Milton finished with a season-high 30 points, four rebounds and four assists, Tyrese Maxey 25 points and Reed 25 points and six rebounds. The Sixers played without MVP candidate Joel Embiid, who won the regular-season scoring title, and James Harden.
The Pistons didn’t have issues with a slow start in the first quarter, jumping to a 20-13 lead in the first seven minutes, on Saddiq Bey’s three-point play, which followed a 3-pointer by Isaiah Stewart and a jumper by Killian Hayes.
Milton started to get hot off the bench with seven straight Sixers points, and a dunk by Matisse Thybulle, which pushed them ahead, 24-23. Livers, who finished 5-of-5 from the field, hit a jumper, but the Sixers scored eight straight points, and finished with a 36-30 lead after the first quarter.
The Pistons rallied in the second quarter and pulled within 62-60 at halftime, and that’s where it got interesting. They moved ahead, 70-66, at the 8:58 mark, after an 10-4 run. The Sixers kept it close, but the Sixers had a 93-88 lead entering the fourth quarter.
The season wrapped with plenty of optimism, as well as work for the young players to do to improve for next year.
“I’m really proud of this year’s guys that kept their nose to the grindstone, and they improved in a lot of different areas,” Casey said.
“They could have mailed it in a long time ago with the way we started the season. That’s how I’ll remember this year.”
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