Why the Detroit Pistons were better missing a lot of starters

Detroit Pistons guard Alec Burks Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Detroit Pistons guard Alec Burks Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports /

An injury ravaged Detroit Pistons team won on the road at Utah and Denver. So how were they blown out by the New York Knicks when relatively healthy. Makes no sense.

The Pistons had reasons to be optimistic when they faced the Knicks. They were coming off two close losses against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Phoenix, both near the top of their respective conference standings. They had also ended their long road trip with victories over against the Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets.

All four teams had better records than New York.

As an added bonus, starting center Isaiah Stewart was returning after sitting out a couple of weeks with a sprained toe. Except for Cade Cunningham, and who knows what is happening with him, and Jaden Ivey, Detroit had everyone available for the first time in a long time.

All signs pointed toward a good Pistons showing – until the game started.

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The Knicks, particularly Julius Randle, came out on fire from three-point land. The Pistons stayed with them for a while, even holding a brief 45-44 lead in the second quarter, but the Knicks kept shooting well while Detroit went cold.

The Knicks outscored the Pistons by a 96-55 margin after Detroit last held the lead, and it really was not close. The fourth quarter was almost all garbage time, with Stewart knocking down three three-pointers which was good for his confidence but empty points in the game.

So, the basic question is: wha happen?

How did the Detroit Pistons play better short-handed

While all the trends pointed towards Detroit doing well against the Knicks, it was the opposite against the Denver Nuggets back on November 22.

The Pistons had not won a road game the entire season and would be without three starters,Cunningham, Stewart and Saddiq Bey, and Marvin Bagley III had just gotten back after sitting out with a sprained knee.

The Nuggets were home, with that infamous high altitude advantage, and had all their big guns: Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr..

So, of course, the Pistons win, 110-108, as Kevin Knox (!) poured in 17 points and Alec Burks adalso stood outded 21 off the bench.

Knox came right back in the next game against the Jazz to score 21 points, 18 from Burks and Marvin Bagley made 9 of 10 shots as they won their second in a row, 125-116.

Those results are just as confounding as the Knicks blowout. So let’s come up with some reasons for it.

Why did Detroit Pistons play better against Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets?

3. Veterans: The bottom line is, youth does not get served with victories in the NBA. Normally, vets like Knox, Cory Joseph and Hamidou Diallo would not have received as many minutes, or maybe not even have been put in the game.

Bagley and Bojan Bogdanovic also stepped up their games, which, combined with the added veteran presence, helped Detroit absorb the inevitable rallies by the opponent and come back.

2. Killian Hayes … was good, really: Fans have been told to be patient with Killian Hayes, eventually he would be shown to be worthy of the No. 7 slot he was drafted in three years ago. It was hard, watching the 6-foot-5 Frenchman be constantly hurt, and constantly missing shots when healthy.

But, with no real alternative, Hayes was handed the keys to running the Pistons offense, and it went well. He had nine points and nine assists against the Nuggets and had just one turnover against the Jazz. He still was not shooting high percentage, but at least he was shooting, something he did not always do.

Hayes actually got his scoring together in the close losses to Cleveland and Phoenix, averaging 16.5 points in those two games. His emergence as a decent scorer might be the biggest development of the whole four game set.

  1. Dwane Casey:  No, not pandering to all the haters of Casey out there but, the Knicks game was not his best moment. The coach went back to his old rotation with everyone back and and strage moves.

He immediately put a rusty Stewart in the starting lineup for a ‘two-big’ lineup with Bagley. That did not work at all, as the Knicks rained three-pointers on them.

Casey also did not reward Knox for his previous fine play, not putting him into the game until there was just 1:45 left in the first period. Even more egregiously, Burks, who has been a key spark off the bench since he began playing, did not play at all, in the first period.

Hamidou Diallo, maybe their best defensive player, sat for the whole first half, while the Knicks shredded them defensively. Diallo scored nine points on 4-for-5 shooting in the second half, but it was too late.

When Knox was taken out with 5:42 left in the second period, the Pistons only trailed by three. They were outscored 19-8 the rest of the period to give the Knicks a 70-56 lead at halftime. It never got better.

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We will see how the Pistons rebound from the Knicks shellacking. Sometimes teams just have a bad night. But Detroit showed they can win shorthanded, and play better than relatively healthy.