Niyo: Casey sends message by 'steadying ship' with Brown, not Kennard

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Pistons rookie guard Bruce Brown (6) finished with a team-high plus-25 in Wednesday's 106-95 win over the Wizards.

The Pistons got what they desperately needed Wednesday night, holding off the slumping Washington Wizards, 106-95, to even their record at .500 on the season before hitting the road for four straight games.

And with his team teetering, having lost nine of its last 11, including an embarrassing display Sunday at home against Atlanta, coach Dwane Casey wasn’t hiding his sense of urgency.

“It was a game I felt like was one of those must-win (games) — for morale, for steadying the ship, so to speak,” Casey said. “And guys came in and got it done. It wasn’t pretty. There were a lot of teaching moments in that fourth quarter.”

Indeed, a dozen turnovers in the final 12 minutes by the home team threatened to turn that must-win into another can’t-believe-it loss.

But as teaching moments go, there was another one Casey delivered Wednesday night. He didn’t just reinsert rookie Bruce Brown into the starting lineup against the Wizards, citing the defensive-minded guard’s energy level. Casey never put Luke Kennard into the game, 72 hours after he benched last year’s lottery pick for the second half of that game against the Hawks.  

Asked Wednesday night what the message to Kennard was, Casey replied simply, “The message is we won tonight.”

'More than just shooting'

He went on to soften the blow just a bit, adding “it’s nothing Luke did wrong.” But as Casey continued to praise Brown, the second-round pick who helped spark Wednesday's victory, the implication was clear.

“It’s about what we needed, or what Bruce Brown brought,” Casey said. “Luke, in this league, is gonna be a good shooter. … But it’s more than just shooting for him — and everybody. It’s cutting, moving without the ball, running the floor, defending. I just thought it was a night for Bruce against (Bradley) Beal and (John) Wall and that group of guys.”

So, yes, the matchups might’ve had something to do with Kennard’s idle time on the bench. So did Langston Galloway's 22 points off the bench, picking up where he left off late in the loss to Atlanta.

Brown has carved out a role as a rookie with his defensive tenacity, which was on display again Wednesday. Wall finished with 21 points on 9-of-19 shooting for the Wizards, who’ve gone off the rails again the last few weeks. But only a third of that scoring came when Brown was on the court.

“Yeah, he’s great, man,” said Blake Griffin, who finished with a game-high 23 points as well as nine rebounds and six assists in the win. “He does a great job every night, especially being a rookie. Every night, I tell him there’s no other rookie that can guard like he can guard, and I firmly believe that. You look at all the different guys he’s been thrown at in his first year, and he’s done a great job on all of them.

“So he’s huge for us. And not just defensively. He gets out on the break and runs and finishes and makes hustle plays.”

Brown actually finished a game-high plus-25 in barely 22 minutes. And after a scoreless first half, the rookie also chipped in offensively with a three-pointer and a fast-break layup during a 23-2 run to start the third quarter for the Pistons.

Fluid position

Safe to say, he’ll get the same kind of run when Detroit plays at Indiana on Friday night. The bigger question now, though, is what to expect from Kennard, who’d gone off for 28 points in a loss at Philadelphia a couple weeks ago. That was his first start since a game against Brooklyn early in what has been an injury-riddled season thus far for Kennard.

Since then, however, he’s shooting 28.1 percent over a six-game stretch, and his coach clearly had seen enough of the pump fakes — “He’s gotta get that gunslinger mentality,” Casey said Wednesday — and lackluster play overall. (In those six games, Kennard didn’t shoot a single free throw.)

In fact, it sounded like the next man in Wednesday night among the reserves who didn’t play actually might’ve been the Pistons’ other rookie second-round pick, Khyri Thomas.

“Khyri, he was on our radar also,” Casey said. “We want to get him some minutes and look at him because, again, he’s a hard-playing dude. You can’t get too many of those kind of guys and I think it’s contagious.”

Presumably, Kennard will catch his drift there. Because for as much energy as Brown brings, the Pistons, who rank 28th in the NBA in three-point percentage, need another shooter to step up and help space the floor. Kennard's supposed to be that guy, and he still might be, though the injury setbacks have compounded his problems thus far. One good thing about Casey is he won't bury players the way some coaches do in this league.

"Some nights it’s gonna be Bruce, others it may be Langston, or it may be Luke’s night," Casey said. "That position is very fluid, depending on what we need."

But on a night the Pistons needed a win, Kennard got the night off. And that's a message — the dreaded DNP-Coach's Decision — that's hard to miss.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo