Detroit — The Pistons wanted to take advantage of a Philadelphia 76ers team without superstar center Joel Embiid, but there was another All-Star looming in the lineup.
Former NBA MVP James Harden was the engine that made the Sixers go in Sunday’s matinee against the Pistons. He nailed stepback 3-pointers. He threw alley-oops to his teammates. He even served as the lead rebounder for the Sixers, who were without Embiid because of a left foot injury.
Harden tallied a triple-double of 20 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists to propel the Sixers past the Pistons, 121-108, on Sunday at Little Caesars Arena.
“I kind of feel like we let our foot off the pedal and got lost defensively,” Pistons center Isaiah Stewart said. “We gave up some easy ones and shot ourselves in the foot.”
The Pistons dropped to 11-32, which stands as the worst record in the league. The 76ers improved to 24-15, creeping closer to the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference.
The loss marked the Pistons’ second of the season to the Sixers, who also won on their home floor on Dec. 21. The Pistons will meet the Sixers again in Philadelphia on Tuesday.
Detroit trailed by 22 and trimmed the deficit to 12 in the fourth quarter, but the game was already out of hand. Harden was one of three Sixers to score at least 20. Tyrese Maxey led Philadelphia with 23 points. Montrezl Harrell, who started in Embiid’s place, had 20 points and six rebounds.
“They’re a championship-caliber team, they’re competing for a championship but we shot ourselves in the foot,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey said. “Twenty-two turnovers is the same amount of turnovers that we had against them in the last game and you can’t do that against a championship-caliber team.”
Both teams were short-handed in the frontcourt. Detroit rookie Jalen Duren, who was a game-time decision, missed Sunday’s game because of right ankle soreness. The Pistons were also without Rodney McGruder, who was a late scratch due to a non-COVID illness.
Here are a few takeaways from Sunday’s loss:
No Duren is a problem: What happens when your starting center and lead rebounder misses a game? Well, it doesn’t bode the best for the team’s rebounding numbers and intetior presence. The Pistons were outrebounded 45-43 on Sunday, and that’s even without the Sixers having Joel Embiid in the lineup. A big part of that was due to James Harden, who collected a game-high 10 rebounds. Paul Reed also provided a lift for Philadelphia on the boards. The third-year forward finished with 16 points and 12 rebounds off the bench.
Isaiah Stewart: As a result of Duren’s absence, Isaiah Stewart returned to his former position and started the game at center. After missing his first 3-pointer of the game, Stewart shifted his attention to the interior. He made five of his first eight field goals, all of which were inside the paint. He totaled 10 points in the first quarter, which tied a career-high for Stewart. It is unclear how long Duren will be sidelined, but Stewart’s brief stint back at center proved that he’s capable of serving as a capable inside scoring option in various pick-and-roll situations. Stewart tallied a double-double of 20 points and 13 rebounds.
Break in case of emergency: Nerlens Noel, who had only played eight games prior to Sunday’s game, received nearly 13 minutes off the bench against the Sixers — the team that drafted him with the No. 6 overall pick in 2013. He received more run than usual since he was the only healthy big man after Isaiah Stewart due to the injuries of Duren and Marvin Bagley III. He made a couple of good defensive plays in his initial time on the floor, which included a steal that led to a breakaway dunk by Bogdanovic. He also drained a couple of free-throw line jumpers. Noel finished with six points and four rebounds.
Turnover woes continue: Friday’s loss to the San Antonio Spurs was marred by turnovers, and that continued on Sunday. The Pistons committed 22 turnovers, the majority of which were by the Pistons guards Killian Hayes and Jaden Ivey. Hayes led the team in scoring with a season-high 26 points and five assists, but he also had a game-high five turnovers. Ivey finished with 10 points, six rebounds and six assists, but also gave the ball away four times. Stewart also had four turnovers on Sunday.
“It hurt because we can’t afford to give up those points,” Stewart said. “We’re not a good enough team to turn the ball over that many times and be able to win the game.”
Pistons’ front-loaded schedule catching up with team
The Pistons have played the most games of any in the NBA this season.
Detroit has played 43 games, one more than the Utah Jazz’s 42 at the time of this report, and it’s starting to catch up with the young roster. The team is coming off a disappointing 123-111 loss at home to the Philadelphia 76ers, after finishing 2-3 on their most recent five-game road trip.
With a 6-18 road record, the Pistons appear to play better in opposing arenas. However, their 5-14 home record isn’t far off. Pistons coach Dwane Casey, when asked about his team’s competitiveness on the road, said he believes his team is more locked-in on the road, but also attributed the sluggish play to the rigorous schedule.
“We want to be more competitive at home. We’re probably a little more competitive on the road. I think the focus was there. Our travel has been horrendous,” Casey said during his pregame press conference. “It’s not an excuse, but our travel getting to San Antonio and our travel getting back here and having a 3 o’clock game today. The computer wasn’t good to us in that situation with our schedule.
“But with that said, I think our focus has been good on the road trips. The lock-in has been there. I’ve been pleased with our road play, and somehow, someway we have to transfer that back once we get home.”
The Pistons tied a season-high with 22 turnovers against the Sixers on Sunday and their self-inflicted mistakes cost them an opportunity to capture a win over the fifth-best team in the Eastern Conference.
After the game, Casey acknowledged the turnovers as a hinderance, but also pointed back to the team’s travel schedule.
“I will say this, we’re playing in mud,” Casey said. “I think the travel has caught up with us. It sounds like an excuse, but it’s real. We had a few hours to get ready for today’s 3 o’clock game after getting in at 4 o’clock in the morning. No excuses for some of the things we did, but that had a factor into it.”
Sunday’s game marked the first of five games in seven days for the Pistons, which includes a back-to-back against the Sixers and Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively. After Detroit’s home game against the New York Knicks next Sunday, the team won’t play again until it faces the Chicago Bulls in Paris on Jan. 19.
A new face appears
Detroit two-way guard Jared Rhoden made his first appearance on the Pistons’ bench since he was signed on Dec. 26. The 6-foot-6 undrafted rookie out of Seton Hall cheered his new team on during timeouts and while on the bench. In four games for the Motor City Cruise, Rhoden has averaged 14.5 points and 9.8 rebounds per game.