Pistons step up defensively, ‘basketball gods’ reward them in comeback win over Thunder

Detroit News

Detroit — Pistons guards Hamidou Diallo and Killian Hayes trapped Oklahoma City’s Josh Giddey and forced a steal early in the fourth quarter of a tight game, leading to a thunderous two-handed slam by Diallo, a former NBA Slam Dunk Contest champion.

About 10 seconds later, Giddey attempted a floater but was denied by a bouncy Jalen Duren — fresh off an ankle injury — who collected his third block of the night.

The sequence exemplified Detroit’s improved defensive intensity displayed throughout the second half that helped erase a 15-point halftime deficit to win their third game of the season.

Cade Cunningham and Isaiah Stewart had their own block party earlier in the game as they denied dunk and layup attempts by Darius Bazley and Luguentz Dort. Even after the rejection, Cunningham hustled to maintain possession of the ball.

“We locked in defensively. We didn’t even think about offense anymore,” Cunningham said. “We just wanted to take pride in guarding the ball and locking up on that end. It translated over to our offense. We got easy looks and the basketball gods rewarded us.”

The Pistons held the Thunder to 40 points in the second half (22 points in the third quarter, 18 in the fourth), the lowest second-half point total allowed this season. It was sparked by Detroit’s 24-5 run to take a 72-69 lead with 6:51 remaining in the third quarter. The switch on defense propelled an improvement on offense as well. Detroit shot 10-of-16 from the field during that scoring binge and limited the Thunder to 3-of-10.

“The adjustment is called energy,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey said. “We played harder than they did. In the first half they spanked us, they out-ran us and they out-hustled us on loose balls. Once we made up our minds to compete at that level, it was the difference.”

The Pistons are tied with the San Antonio Spurs for last in the NBA with a defensive rating of 116.5. It’s not a number that’s ideal for a team that wants its identity to center around that area of the floor, but with Duren’s return and the forthcoming return of Marvin Bagley III, the Pistons should have a better chance to improve as the season goes on.

Duren is optimistic about Detroit’s potential to become a defensive-minded team due to the versatility shown from all five positions of the floor. He’s a big piece to that puzzle, figuratively and literally.

At 6-foot-10, Duren changes the makeup of the Pistons’ second unit when he’s on the floor because he can serve as a lob threat and rim protector.

“I feel like this team has a lot of defensive potential, just off the size and length that we bring. Me and (Isaiah Stewart) being able to slide our feet and protect the rim. Cade being a big guard that can guard (point guards) to (centers). You got guys like Saddiq (Bey). We got a lot of big people who can guard so I feel like our defensive potential is huge.”

The Pistons (3-8) will face the Boston Celtics (7-3) on Wednesday in the first game of a two-game roadtrip. The Celtics’ two best wing defenders are reigning defensive player of the year Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown. Despite having two gifted defenders, Boston is only 20th in the league in defensive rating with a 112.8. The Celtics rank last in the NBA in steals with 5.5 per game.

Detroit will need to prioritize the defensive end from the opening tip in order to compete for a second consecutive win.

Pistons at Celtics

Tipoff: 7 Wednesday, TD Garden, Boston

TV/radio: BSD/97.1

▶ Outlook: The Pistons will play first of two meetings against the Celtics on Wednesday, looking for back-to-back wins for the first time this season. Boston is third in the Eastern Conference standings, coming off a 109-106 win at Memphis on Monday. Wednesday’s game marks former All-Star forward Blake Griffin’s first meeting against the Pistons since he joined the Celtics this season.

mcurtis@detroitnews.comTwitter: @MikeACurtis2

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