The Pistons dropped their season opener against the Minnesota Timberwolves, falling apart in the final five minutes. Some could be blamed on rookie mistakes, some on veterans failing to step up.
All in all though, it was a competitive, interesting game. More than you’d expect from a team on the rebuild. And it left plenty to take away from it.
We won’t say anything mean about you ever again Mason Plumlee
The player of the game for the Pistons was undoubtedly Plumlee.
Troy Weaver took a fair amount of criticism, including from me, for paying Plumlee $25 million on the opening day of free agency. But in the season opener, Plumlee’s virtues were on full display.
He showed some slick passing, tallying up six assists with no turnovers, even bringing the ball up the court a few times but not in that Andre Drummond way that fills you with dread. His eight rebounds aren’t a number to write home about, but his blocking out had misses going to his teammates. He set nice, prolonged screens that avoided getting called for an offensive foul.
His defense against Karl-Anthony Towns was mostly pretty solid. KAT got his 22 points, but they mostly came in spurts. Though it still ended in a D’Angelo Russell three-pointer, that Plumlee managed to get this stop on an iso against KAT down the stretch in the fourth quarter was pretty impressive.
Oh, and he went 7-8 from the field for 14 points. That’ll do. The guy even hit a mid-range jumper. Excellent first Pistons game for Plumlee.
What’s Blake’s role?
Blake Griffin played 35 minutes for the first time since the 2018-19 season, and it was a new look for him on the court. That year, on his way to an All-NBA team, Griffin assumed the point forward role and dominated the ball en route a career-high usage rate.
In the opener, Blake deferred the role of initiating to the backcourt of Derrick Rose, Killian Hayes, and Delon Wright. Most of his touches that would end in a shot for him or off his pass came from the post, backing down his defender with a bully ball style.
There are two ways to look at this. The first is good news: Blake seems to have some help! He’s not going to be expected to put the team on his back and carry them every possession of every night.
The other: the team needs more out of him. Especially down the stretch.
The Pistons folded in this one. Killian Hayes had three turnovers in his three fourth quarter minutes, the final two were particularly crushing. They were back to back bad passes trying to feed Blake that instead turned into fast-break scores, turning a four-point lead into a tie game.
But even after the mistakes led to Hayes being subbed out, Blake took the backseat as the Wolves pulled away to a double-digit win. He took just one shot down the stretch, a desperation three-pointer in the final minute.
He’s going to have to find a way to flick that switch. To balance letting others run the show for most of the game, but occasionally going back into his alpha mode.
Assistant to the point guard
For most of the game, Hayes played alongside Wright and the two were essentially co-point guards. But either still has the size to be able to match up with opposing shooting guards.
The pairing seemed to take some of the playmaking pressure off Hayes, letting him have some responsibility without being completely in the deep end. It worked nicely! Before his fourth quarter implosion, Hayes only had one turnover with three assists, to go along with 7 points on 3-6 shooting. He also didn’t look like a 19-year-old defensively. It was shaping up to be quite a nice debut.
And when those three fourth quarter turnovers happened? Wright was on the bench. Hayes was thoroughly on his own as the sole point guard, and everyone on the court knew where he was supposed to get the ball. The turnovers were ugly. Inexcusable. You can’t have those types of mistakes during a tight game in the fourth quarter.
But also. They were predictable.
Wright may be training wheels for Hayes. But hey, that’s how I learned to ride a bike. The notion of pairing the two makes quite a bit of sense, at least until the training wheels are ready to come off.
Wasn’t there supposed to be a youth movement?
I’m old enough to remember when Dwane Casey said:
“That’s one of the goals for this year, is to kind of force-feed some of the young players, as well as compete to win,” Casey said. “That’s the challenge in itself, but a good challenge with the talent that these young men have, is to give them as much as they can handle.”
Hayes played 21 minutes. He probably would have gotten the chance to close the game, if not for the screw-ups that understandably forced Casey to get him off the court.
Sekou Doumbouya only got 13 minutes, despite a quite solid game. It was one of those backseat kinds of games for Sekou, where too often last year he’d become invisible. But in this one, he still managed to make his presence felt, moving on offense and working the boards. He managed 6 points and 9 rebounds in those 13 minutes, something that certainly wouldn’t have happened last year.
If you consider Svi Myhailiuk and Josh Jackson part of those young players Casey is talking about, they got their opportunities. Jackson, we’ll talk about him in a minute.
But the other rookies in Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart, and Saben Lee? Nada.
Stewart was particularly puzzling. Jahlil Okafor had a really rough second half, unplayably bad. But that’s to be expected. This center rotation shouldn’t really be expected to light the world on fire every night. Chances are that Mason Plumlee won’t average 14/8/6 for the season. He’ll have some nights where he’s not looking great.
So if Okafor is having a tough time, why not stick Stewart out there to see if he can give you some better minutes? Surely Okafor isn’t here on a minimum contract to be a fixture in the rotation?
And with how much depth the team has with those taller wings, it may take trying to do what Casey said, force-feed some minutes to Bey – as well as more for Sekou.
It was a competitive game throughout and it’s understandable that Casey didn’t want to see his lead disappear like it ultimately did. But Jerami Grant wasn’t very good after the first quarter, and a handful of his minutes going to Bey probably would have actually improved the team. A major contributor to the loss was the 8-35 three-point shooting, and Grant’s three-point shooting was pretty ugly.
The competition is good to see, and there is merit to the philosophy of not building bad habits by straight up tanking. But if this is a rebuilding team, the guys you’re saying you’re rebuilding around need to get some time on the court.
Uh, Josh Jackson
After seeing Jackson in the preseason, I was out. Even as he played better in the last two games, still out. He didn’t look like an NBA player to me. Too thin, always a step behind, nothing of that lockdown defender he was supposed to be coming out of Kansas.
Still, he seemed like the front runner for the first wing off the bench. I still would like that role for Mykhailiuk for his shooting or Doumbouya for his long term growth, but after his first regular season game in a Pistons uniform, it makes a bit more sense why Jackson keeps getting pushed for that job.
Thanks to an off night from Mykhailiuk, Jackson was the team’s only three-point threat, knocking down 3-7. His athleticism was also on display in transition. He was pretty good defensively, pretty good on the boards (6 rebounds is a good number, but most were uncontested), and he played well enough to earn a spot on the closing lineup and lead the team in scoring with 19 points.
He’s not really a contender to start at the two, unless you want to move Hayes to the bench. There just wouldn’t be enough playmaking on the wing. But he outplayed Jerami Grant. Those two share many of the same virtues. That’s worth watching.