The Detroit Pistons were able to overcome a 16 point second-half deficit to tie the game at 111 with just over 1 minute to go, but two late turnovers sealed their fate and they fell to the Denver Nuggets 117-111 at Ball Arena in Denver.
The Pistons were short-handed as Kelly Olynyk, just recently back from an extended absence, landed in health and safety protocols. That meant Detroit was limited to defending former MVP Nikola Jokic, who might also be the frontrunner to win this season, with Isaiah Stewart and Trey Lyles. Oh, yeah, and Jokic was coming off four consecutive triple-doubles.
A Cory Joseph floater in the lane tied the game at 111 with 1:15 to go. The Pistons were able to force an errant shot and had a chance to take the lead but Cory Joseph had the ball poked away from behind and lost it on a drive to the rim.
Jokic nailed two free throws to give Denver a two-point lead on their next trip down the floor. On the ensuing possession, Saddiq Bey had the ball near the sideline, and as he pivoted his back heel stepped out of bounds.
The Nuggets stretched the lead to four and a whistle followed by a Cade Cunningham 28-foot 3-pointer at the top of the key made it seem like Detroit had a chance to tie the game with a four-point play. Sadly, a foul was called just a half-second before the shot and it was just side out of bounds. Then the Pistons drew up a nice play to get Saddiq Bey open on a curl around a screen for an open 3 that he managed to sink, but Detroit was called for a moving screen and the bucket was waved off.
That was all she wrote.
It was a shame because the Pistons played their guts out in a new-look lineup. Killian Hayes, who has struggled and is coming back from an injury came off the bench in this one and Cory Joseph inherited the starting point guard spot. It seemed to suit both players, and both were on the floor during the final five minutes of action in a three-guard lineup along with Cade Cunningham, who finished with 18 points, 8 assists, and 6 turnovers.
Killian scored 8 points off the bench, handed out five assists, and played quality team and individual defense. Joseph was an efficient 7-of-9 for 18 points and six assists of his own.
While they were a bit overmatched by Jokic, the aforementioned Stewart and Lyles both played admirably. Stewart was scoring hot out of the gate with a quick 10 points in the first quarter on 4-of-4 shooting. Stewart finished the night with 18 points on 8-of-8 shooting. Lyles also scored 18 points, including key buckets in the fourth-quarter comeback.
But Jokic and the Nuggets were simply too much. Denver pounded the ball down low to take advantage of Detroit’s lack of size, and Jokic had several post possessions where he just patiently pounded his way to his spot and flipped the ball into the basket. Sort of like a father using minimal energy to beat his kid in the driveway. When he wasn’t scoring, he was able to dish on the short-roll to any number of teammates camped on the 3-point line for a shot or an additional drive on a scrambling Detroit defense. Jokic finished with 34 points on just 19 shots, 9 rebounds and 8 assists.
Both teams shot better than 50 percent in this one, and Detroit even managed to make 11 threes. Denver had six players finish in double figures.
It would have been understandable for the Pistons to slink away quietly after playing four games in six nights on a tough four-game west-coast swing, but they finished the trip fighting. They also could have packed it in after really scuffling in the third quarter with the bench really being outmatched. Denver finished the third on a 17-3 run and outscored Detroit 32-16 in the third frame. But again Detroit fought back.
It’s the kind of fight you like to see, and hopefully something they can take back with them to Detroit. They play these Nuggets again at Little Caesars Arena on Tuesday.