NEW YORK — Coaches who lead rebuilding teams must find a tricky balance — weighing the needs of the future against the present. They’re paid to win, but also to develop talent. Many nights, those goals are in open conflict.
Most of this season, the Detroit Pistons have prioritized developing their young players. But on Thursday, coach Dwane Casey prioritized the team’s need for a win after two uninspiring weeks of basketball. Isaiah Stewart came off the bench for the first time this season, as did Killian Hayes following 32 consecutive starts. Hayes was replaced by Alec Burks, who got his first start after previously establishing himself as one of the league’s best bench scorers.
What was the incentive behind the rotation changes?
“Competing,” Casey said after the game. “Not digging ourselves in a hole in the first quarter.”
The moves paid off. The Pistons defeated the Brooklyn Nets, 130-122, to snap a four-game losing streak. The Pistons looked energized Thursday, unlike Monday, when they fell behind by 20 points five minutes into a blowout by the Milwaukee Bucks, or last Thursday, when they were outhustled by the Chicago Bulls in Paris.
The Pistons (13-37) hit timely shots at the Barclays Center, took care of the ball and were more connected defensively, and avoided tying the franchise’s worst record through 50 games.
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The new starting lineup — consisting of Burks, Saddiq Bey, Bojan Bogdanovic, Jalen Duren and Jaden Ivey — passed its first test.
“We have two rookies and two veterans, and that’s kind of the thought process to mix those two up to give them some balance, to give them an anchor, so to speak,” Casey said. “When things get shaky you have two veteran players and even (Bogdanovic), he had a subpar night tonight, but still his maturity under pressure is there, and gives those guys that balance.”
The end result wasn’t a knock on Stewart or Hayes, who were both productive off the bench. Hayes closed out the final four minutes and delivered clutch plays, scoring four points and threading a bounce pass to Jalen Duren that gave the rookie center an easy dunk, which stretched the lead to seven with 44 seconds remaining. Hayes finished with 16 points on 6-for-12 shooting, including two 3-pointers on five tries, and Stewart chipped in 11 points and five rebounds after missing four of the past six games with left shoulder soreness.
But inserting Burks, who scored 20 points on 6-for-9 shooting, into the starting lineup gave the unit a consistency and punch it has often lacked. The Nets threatened with several runs in the second half, including a late 11-6 spurt that cut the Pistons’ lead to five with just over a minute left. But they never panicked or lost control.
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Bogdanovic had an off night, finishing with 11 points on 4-for-15 shooting. But it didn’t matter. Bey dropped 25 points and made nine of his first 13 shots. Ivey showcased his ongoing growth as a primary playmaker, scoring 16 points and dishing eight assists against three turnovers. Duren tallied 17 points, three days after setting a career-high of 23 against the Bucks.
The Pistons had an “extra competitive” practice at their Midtown facility Wednesday, Casey said. He divided the roster into teams that mimicked his pending lineup change. After an embarrassing first five minutes against the Bucks on Monday, players were eager to get on the court.
“We knew that wasn’t us, how we came out,” Bey said. “We had a good day of practice the next day, got into it, and competed. Played up and down. We knew we had to start out better than that and play better through all four quarters. We were ready to nip that one in the bud and keep going.”
The Pistons took control of the game in the third quarter after trailing 59-58 at halftime. Bogdanovic opened the second half with a three-point play to give Detroit the lead for good, and Bey forced an early Nets timeout after knocking down his third 3-pointer at the 11:22 mark. A pull-up jumper from Hayes midway through the fourth gave the Pistons a 14-point lead, their biggest of the night.
They’ve been prone to giving up leads this season, as they did against the Los Angeles Clippers early this month —the West Coast foe rallied from a 14-point deficit with 3:22 to play for an overtime win. Detroit has been at a talent and experience disadvantage most nights this season. A weary Nets team, on the second night of a back-to-back, and on the heels of a five-game road trip, didn’t have the fight to complete a comeback.
Kyrie Irving, sans Kevin Durant, did his best, leading Brooklyn with 40 points.
“Learning to play with the lead is something that young players have to learn to do,” Casey said. “It’s not easy in this league with the 3-ball and a dynamic player like Kyrie Irving, who’s one of the best in our league in scoring. No lead is safe. Knowing that in the back of our head, making sure we executed, took care of the ball which I think we did. Only had 11 turnovers. Overall, we took care of the ball. Learning how to play with that lead is very, very important.”
Thursday’s benching of two of the Pistons’ 2020 first-rounders was a surprise. But it illustrates how demoralizing losing can be, and the downsides of relying on young talent. Bey, Hayes and Stewart have now all spent time coming off the bench this season. Bey has been up and down, but Hayes and Stewart have measurably improved. Growth is rarely linear. Sometimes, veterans have to come in and save the day.
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The Pistons left Barclays with a win, their third in 11 games in 2023. But Casey was able to push the right buttons for a win — a real victory, rather than a moral one.
It’s a developmental season, but something had to give.
“The way we had a game the other night, to bounce back the way we did tonight says a lot about our guys’ character, about our guys’ grit and fiber over our team, and that’s what I was proud of as much as anything,” Casey said. “Win, lose or draw, when we come out and compete like we did tonight, that’s what we’re shooting for, is getting that type of bounce-back through adversity and overcoming it.”