MIAMI — This feels different.
Let’s not get it twisted: A loss is a loss, and the Detroit Pistons opened the season one point behind the defending Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat, 103-102.
But despite the result, this feels like the start of what fans have been waiting for: seeing a rebuilding team that’s young but not incompetent. Detroit has often worn two hats over the past few seasons. Based on some of these results, it sometimes feels like the team is proud of it. On Wednesday, though, the Pistons looked capable. From April through June, they compete with the hottest teams in the NBA and belong to them.
Optimists would say Detroit beat itself. The optimists may be right. The Pistons committed 14 turnovers in the first half, which led to Miami’s 21 points. Many are non-forced, the product of tension and excessive relaxation. However, they trailed by only 11 points at halftime.
Pessimists might say, “The same goes for the Pistons,” and they might be right. At some point, you have to stop beating yourself up. Good teams don’t.
Detroit is not a good team yet. But as someone who has watched every second since the “recovery” of 2020 began, tonight, this game, this team, felt like the start of something worth getting behind. Maybe I’ll break my promise Friday night in Charlotte, but I don’t think I will. This feels like the moment Pistons fans have been waiting for. In the end, Detroit isn’t a team with the potential to rise, but rather a team that looks ready to really start rising.
Remember Cade Cunningham? The 2021 No. 1 overall pick has played less than 82 regular-season games due to various injuries, most recently a shin injury that forced him to undergo surgery and miss 70 games last season? On Wednesday, he sent a reminder to the basketball world with a 30-point, nine-assist performance. Oh, and he did it without attempting a free throw.
Remember all that talk about defense? Detroit held Miami to 103 points, equivalent to the 2004 team’s 82 points, and blocked 13 shots. For much of the night, the Pistons’ half-court defense was as solid as it has been the past three years. There was a moment of near-perfection in the fourth quarter. Miami scored just 45 points in the second half.
Remember all that talk about resilience? The Pistons found themselves trailing by double digits a few times, but they always found a way to keep the game rolling. The most impressive moment came early in the fourth quarter when the Heat led by 19 points. Detroit went on an 18-3 run in about six minutes.
The Pistons did some soul-searching on Wednesday. Cunningham showed he can be the best player on the floor with two All-Stars. Detroit has proven they can defend at a high level despite their youth. The Pistons set the standard for the rest of the season.
“I’ve said it several times, when you guys show me you can play like this, that’s what I look forward to every night,” Pistons head coach Monty Williams said.
Of course, all of this is a bit of an exaggeration. Even the Denver Nuggets don’t play to their standards every night. This is life in the NBA. It’s no exaggeration to say that this defensive performance from the Pistons shouldn’t just be seen everywhere. This should be a regular occurrence. Why not? Because young teams don’t play defense?
On Wednesday night, a young team did just that.
“I wouldn’t even say we turned ourselves in,” Cunningham said. “We’ve gotten to know each other, you know what I mean? That’s the level we need to play night in and night out and take it to the next level. We can be better than we were tonight.”
Not everything is perfect. The Pistons lost a game in which their opponents only scored 103 points. Guards other than Cunningham and Marcus Sather, who scored eight points on 3-of-4 shooting in his NBA debut, couldn’t buy a bucket. Osar Thompson looks like a rookie offensively. Cunningham’s kickoff passes all ended up ringing off the rim, with the exception of Isaiah Stewart’s shot, who was also a monster, scoring 14 points, grabbing 14 rebounds, and 3 from beyond the arc. 2 hits. (Talk about resilience, eh?)
Turnovers aside, Killian Hayes, Jaden Ivey, Joe Harris or Alec Burks provide better spacing and a jump shot or two, and Detroit’s lineup at Kasea Center The front row was won by Michigan native Floyd Mayweather. Williams will have some issues to iron out between now and Detroit’s next game on Friday.
He’s already thinking about it.
“Offensively, I’ve got to get better at some things so we recognize where we’re making mistakes; calling better so the spacing is better,” Williams said. “But defensively, we have to build on that. When we get stops and play in transition, we’re going to have a hard time getting stops.”
Again, Detroit is not a finished product. This is not an announcement that the Pistons will rise from the ashes and make the playoffs. It’s stupid to say that after a game, especially after a game they lost. It’s just an acknowledgment that something feels different. It feels worth it. at last.
General manager Troy Weaver’s vision may well be on display: a big team full of players who follow suit, turn defense into an easy offense, and can be led by potential stars. It took a while, but it might be here.
Loss aside, the Pistons did it. They don’t just talk about being a good defensive team; they talk about being a good defensive team. Once basketball became important, they proved it. They talked about their toughness and proved it by overcoming several physical blows from the defending Eastern Conference champions. Now, Detroit must forge its own path. Stop using failure as a reason to win. That’s where youth comes in, but it can’t be a crutch for too long. The season is still in its infancy. The issue is still being resolved. Chemistry is still forming.
I’m not sure where the Pistons will go after the regular season. I just know that what I saw and felt on Wednesday was believable.
“It’s different,” Stewart said.
(Photos of Cade Cunningham and Tyler Herro: Jason Wenlove/USA TODAY)