Auburn Hills -- Things were looking dire for Pistons coach Dwane Casey in his Toronto return on Wednesday, trailing by 17 points to the Eastern Conference’s best team late in the third quarter.
“We were running and playing in mud,” Casey said. “We just felt like we needed a spark by a big. No disrespect to Zaza (Pachulia), but hopefully a little bit more fleet of foot, a little bit more speed at that position.”
Enter Jon Leuer.
Playing in his fifth game of this season after his last campaign ended on Halloween night, Leuer came in and committed an offensive foul on his first play, then allowed a Greg Monroe put-back as Toronto’s lead ballooned to a game-high 19 points.
Then, Leuer provided a spark, scoring four points and grabbing four rebounds in seven minutes.
By the time Leuer exited with 9:10 to play, the lead was trimmed to single-digits and the regulars, sparked by Stanley Johnson’s defense, finished the job.
Detroit outscored Toronto 40-19 after digging the 19-point hole as Casey and the Pistons earned an emotional 106-104 victory on a Reggie Bullock buzzer-beater.
The long comeback was reminiscent of Leuer’s personal journey back from left ankle surgery in January, coupled with offseason surgery on his right knee to repair a medial meniscus that was injured during an offseason workout.
“That’s why you put in all that work and why you do all the rehab and stuff so you can be part of wins like that and moments like that, and locker rooms after the game like that,” Leuer said Friday. “It was fun the be in that locker room and have coach say, ‘Hey Jon, you gave us some great minutes.’
“That makes all the pain and all the rehab worth it.”
Leuer was brought to Detroit by Stan Van Gundy in the 2016 offseason as a free agent and his strong start fizzled down the stretch in year one, averaging a career-high 10.2 points and 5.4 rebounds per game.
Leuer came to training camp hoping to earn a starting spot last season and was tabbed for heavy minutes after the trade of Marcus Morris, opening post opportunities.
At 29, the 6-foot-10 Leuer was back to square one this offseason.
He’s trying to earn his way into Casey’s rotation, playing only mop-up minutes other than a 22-minute appearance against Philadelphia on Nov. 3 after Andre Drummond was in foul trouble throughout.
Wednesday’s chance and result suggest more big minutes could be on the way.
“He showed that he’s getting closer and closer,” Casey said, noting Reggie Jackson is under the same recovery circumstance coming off his ankle injury last season. “When you’re out that period of time, there’s no way you can be as sharp and have your legs under you that quickly. It may be another month or so to where they’re back in tip-top form that they were before they were injured.”
Jackson has said Leuer was a great companion when times were tough during the long recovery.
While Jackson has already had big moments for the Pistons’ 7-6 start, Leuer is starting to find his groove.
“It’s just fun to be out there,” Leuer said. “After you go through these injuries and the very long rehab processes, you realize what a blessing it is just to be out there and get any minutes. It can be taken from you in the blink of an eye.
“I’m just thankful and grateful to be out there and be healthy and be playing, and I’m going to look to build off what I did and just be ready when my name is called.”
The Grand Rapids Drive are taking it back to the old school on Saturday night, wearing teal jerseys patterned around the Pistons 1990s duds.
The Pistons introduced the teal uniforms, along with a flaming horse head symbol, in 1996. They stayed until 2001, but will be back one night only for the Pistons’ G League affiliate against the Canton Charge.
Henry Ellenson, Khyri Thomas and Bruce Brown were assigned to Grand Rapids for their pair of weekend games.
Casey said they’d be back with the Pistons for Monday’s game against Cleveland.
The Pistons play seven of their next eight games at home, starting Monday against Cleveland (2-12).
After a home-and-home against Houston, the Pistons then play three home games against teams expected to finish outside the playoffs in Phoenix, New York and Chicago.
However, then the Pistons play nine teams from last season’s playoffs in their first 10 December games, starting Dec. 1 at home with two-time defending champion Golden State.
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.