The Detroit Pistons were not supposed to win Thursday night against the Portland Trail Blazers. They were the lesser of the two teams, and had to rely on a pair of two-way players to field nine bodies after a makeover of the roster at the NBA trade deadline. They were on a back to back-on the road, on a West Coast trip.
For a half, the Pistons certainly didn’t play like a team who thought they could win. They were down by as many as 23 points and key players were delivering some of their sloppiest games of the season— and that is saying something. Then something magical happened.
I went to bed.
Yes, I did not see the comeback that saw the Pistons prevail 128-122 in overtime. I have no idea what happened, but I’m anxious to find out when I can get my hands on the rebroadcast. Looking at the handy dandy play-by-play, I can see that the Pistons started forcing, or were at least the beneficiaries of some Blazer miscues, and the two-way guys Jared Rhoden and Stanley Umude made a few shots. In the final five minutes of the third, the deficit was cut from 23 to 13.
The fourth quarter appears to be Jalen Duren and Marcus Sasser time, which is no surprise to anyone who has paid attention to the Pistons since mid-December. Duren is aggressively attacking the rim and showing a multitude of moves and decent touch that is leading to points. Sasser has been unleashed since the Pistons decided to move on from the now-departed Killian Hayes. He’s shooting the lights out, and he’s starting to figure out a few things about being a facilitator.
A Sasser stepback 3 cut the deficit from five to two with 89 seconds remaining, the two teams traded points, and then a Thompson dunk off a Sasser assist, his 10th of night, tied the game.
In overtime it was all Detroit. Blazers forward Jerami Grant scored his 49th point of the night to put Portland up 122-120 with 4:35 remaining, and that was the last point the team would score for the rest of the game.
The Pistons took a 16-15 lead with 5:02 remaining in the first quarter. Their next lead came with 3:08 remaining in overtime— a Sasser pull-up 3-pointer.
Now that I’ve covered the most exciting part of a game I have yet to see, I wanted to pivot a bit to how strange and maybe fitting this is during this slightly cursed and definitely bizarre Pistons season.
Tonight’s OT win, with seven regulars healthy and practically an entirely new half of the team arriving shortly, was Detroit’s first back-to-back win since beating the Chicago Bulls on Oct. 28 to move its record to 2-1.
Directly after that game, the team went on an NBA-record 28-game losing streak. If you can think all the way back to the beginning of November, the Pistons played the Blazers then, too.
They surrendered a 12-point halftime lead, and it is a game that James Edwards of The Athletic has called a turning point in the season. The team reportedly seemed shell shocked in the locker room. They felt they had given the game away, and didn’t know why, and didn’t really understand how. Then the season spiraled out of control.
Fast forward to last night, to a game the Pistons had no business winning. Perhaps this second Blazers game is a worthy second inflection point on the season. It can serve as a true signal that perhaps this team is back on track.
In truth, they’ve been playing better basketball since swapping out Marvin Bagley and Isaiah Livers for Mike Muscala and the now-released Danilo Gallinari in mid-January.
The Pistons get all the headlines for being the worst of the worst in the NBA. It’s hard to argue when you have a 28-game losing streak on your resume. But the team actually only has the fourth-worst net rating in the league. They are just .5 points behind the Blazers team they just beat.
The team ranks 25th in offensive rating and 29th in defensive rating. But if you narrow the scope to when the Pistons made their first of what became many trades, things look even brighter.
Since the Muscala trade, the Pistons are 5-7 and have the 15th-best net rating in the NBA. They rank 24th on defense and eighth in offense. Who knows what the future holds with eight new players joining the fray. They all have better defensive reputations than every player the Pistons let go of other than Hayes. Whether their offense craters without Bojan Bogdanovic and Alec Burks remains to be seen.
In nearly all the reaction pieces I’ve seen and heard since the deadline ended, the Pistons have been roasted for its flurry of moves. They deserve some of the criticism, sure, because you can convincingly argue that Detroit is still doing what it always does, which is lose deals on the margins.
If they traded Bogdanovic and Burks last year like they should have, I think it is reasonable to assume they would have netted a better return than Quentin Grimes, some second-round picks, and some junk.
But I have to push back a bit on all the critics who are exasperatedly asking “what are the Pistons doing???”
Honestly, I think the Pistons are doing exactly what a new GM would be doing if the Pistons had fired Troy Weaver the moment the losing streak hit 20. I don’t think Weaver should have the opportunity to clean up the mess of his own making, but that is exactly what the team is doing.
They swapped out non-functional roster parts for pieces that fit and allow for better evaluation for the players who matter. They grabbed two pieces that you would want to be in Pistons uniforms as complementary pieces for the next four-plus years in Grimes and Fontecchio. They moved on from players who had no future on any semblance of a Pistons team that mattered.
They lost a bit of offensive skill, but they didn’t lose much spacing, and the spacing is what has powered the Pistons to a top-10 offense lately (even if that number is a bit inflated). Now they have a chance to build a defense that can crawl from the bottom of the standings into the low 20s or maybe even beyond.
It’s a new season for the Detroit Pistons. I don’t think you should expect them to suddenly transform into a good team, but they are now an actual team. They have players who are excelling, and they have pieces that fit together.
Let these two Blazers games be important book ends to what might be the darkest chapter in Pistons history. Now it’s time to turn the page and see what this team can really do.