Detroit Pistons' COVID-19 outbreak 'blindsiding,' but they played with purpose

·6 min read

MIAMI — Despite all of the chaos surrounding the Detroit Pistons in the 36 hours leading up to Thursday's game, they didn't question whether they could win it. The Pistons played one of their best offensive games of the season against the Miami Heat. They didn't win, but their mindset going in clearly paid off.

The NBA's ongoing COVID-19 outbreak finally reached the Pistons this week. Cade Cunningham entered the NBA's health and safety protocols on Wednesday. Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart, Saben Lee and Rodney McGruder joined him two hours before their tipoff against the Heat. Pistons players and staffers were re-tested for the virus not long before the game started. There was a chance the game wouldn't be played at all.

Detroit Pistons forward Trey Lyles (8) and teammate guard Frank Jackson (5) defend Miami Heat guard Tyler Herro (14) during the first half on Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021, at FTX Arena in Miami.
Detroit Pistons forward Trey Lyles (8) and teammate guard Frank Jackson (5) defend Miami Heat guard Tyler Herro (14) during the first half on Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021, at FTX Arena in Miami.

FEELING A DRAFT? Why Pistons may go Chet Holmgren over Paolo Banchero if they pick No. 1

FEELING A TRADE?: Pistons deadline options: Will they move Jerami Grant now, or later?

THURSDAY'S GAME: Pistons fall short against Heat, 115-112

"It was kind of blindsiding for us," Trey Lyles said. "It happened right before we were coming over to shoot. Guys were unaware if we were going to play or not. Once we finally got here, guys were ready to play. It just showed that guys are mentally available and ready to play."

Lyles was Detroit's best player in the 115-112 loss, finishing with a career-high 28 points, eight rebounds and four blocks. The Pistons had just nine players available, clearing the required eight players necessary by one. That one — Cheick Diallo — signed a 10-day contract just a day prior. The box score belied how short-handed the Pistons were. They made a season-high 18 3-pointers, led by as many as 14 points and stayed ahead of the Heat for nearly 37 minutes of game time.

It took a late run for the home team to pull away, with 10 of the game's final 12 points. Tyler Herro and Max Strus had to knock down clutch 3-pointers in the final 90 seconds to give Miami the lead. Saddiq Bey knocked down a 16-foot jumper to tie the game at 112 with 59 seconds left, but the Pistons were unable to answer Strus' 3 that came less than 20 seconds later.

It was the Pistons' 16th loss in 17 games, but there were plenty of reasons to feel good about their performance considering the circumstances.

"Before the game, on the bus and in the locker room, we kept talking about, ‘Let’s just go out and play,'" said assistant coach Rex Kalamian, who filled in for Dwane Casey for the third time in the past week. "'Let’s go out and have fun. Let’s go out and ball tonight.’ I think the guys bought into that, and they were like, ‘Let’s play hard and let’s play for each other.’ We knew we were undermanned and guys were going to have to play big minutes.

"I think our belief as a team, as an organization, never wavered as to whether we could win the game or not. Inside that locker room, we really felt like we were going to win. Pregame and at halftime, we felt like we were going to win this game. That was from everybody."

Despite having nine players, the Pistons effectively went seven deep. Off the bench, Cheick Diallo and Luka Garza combined for eight minutes, while Jamorko Pickett played 15 and Josh Jackson 21. All five starters topped 34 minutes: Bey led with 43 minutes, Cory Joseph had 41, Frank Jackson 39, Lyles 37 and Hamidou Diallo 34.

Joseph and Lyles played their best games of the season. As Detroit's only healthy point guard, Joseph was responsible for organizing his teammates and dictating the pace of play. He fulfilled both roles admirably, finishing with 21 points, nine rebounds and six assists. The Pistons played fast and found open shooters all night. Despite several players playing out of position, they rarely looked discombobulated.

"Cory Joseph was amazing tonight," Kalamian said. "Not only did he play 42 minutes, but he pushed the pace all night. I couldn’t even call a play a few times. Every time the ball came off the rim or went through the net, he was racing it off the floor. To his credit, he organized our group. For as many opportunities as we had, and as fast as we played, we played somewhat organized.

"He made some big shots, too. He was 5-for-7 from the 3 point line. Cory Joseph is a winner, in general. Tonight, he made winning basketball plays."

Miami Heat guard Tyler Herro (14) drives past Detroit Pistons forward Trey Lyles (8) during the second half Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021, in Miami.
Miami Heat guard Tyler Herro (14) drives past Detroit Pistons forward Trey Lyles (8) during the second half Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021, in Miami.

Lyles was also impressive, knocking down seven of 13 from the floor and all 11 of his free throws. He has been one of Detroit's most important rotation players, playing out of position at center while Kelly Olynyk rehabs from a left knee sprain. Lyles hasn't been consistent offensively, though, while recently forming a habit of hesitating before taking 3-pointers. Kalamian joked that he told Lyles before the game if he didn't take shots, he would be benched.

"I think as the season has gone on, I personally have become more settled with my role on the team and with my opportunities," Lyles said. "Tonight, just having confidence in myself and just being shorthanded knowing that I'm going to be able to play for a long time, and having coach Rex in my ear telling me to shoot the ball definitely helps."

The Pistons could get Olynyk back soon, as he nears the six-week re-evaluation date after spraining his knee on Nov. 10. But they will otherwise be short-handed a while longer. All five players in the protocols must either sit out 10 days or produce two negative PCR tests before they can rejoin the team. Meanwhile, Jerami Grant is still recovering from thumb surgery and won't return until late January at the earliest.

Thursday was an encouraging performance for Detroit. It will be a while before they return to normal, but they may be up to the challenge.

"That’s the NBA, man," Joseph said. "We’re all very blessed to play this game. Everyday you wake up, that’s how you gotta look at it. Any circumstances that you’re going through, at the end of the day the other players gotta tie their shoes up just like us. We just came out, we played free, we played fast, we played together. As long as we’re doing that, and we add those guys back into the fold when they’re done with their situation, I feel like we’ll be even better."

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here's how you can gain access to our most exclusive Pistons content. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Pistons' COVID-19 outbreak 'blindsiding,'