Detroit — It was a nice little reunion story for a minute.
Pistons coach Dwane Casey and San Antonio Spurs leading scorer DeMar DeRozan shared a warm hug and spent a few minutes catching up before Monday night's game. Casey and DeRozan were together for nine years in Toronto, where DeRozan began his career as a 19-year-old.
“He’s almost like a son,” Casey said before the game.
Then the game happened; specifically, the second quarter happened. DeRozan scored six points and triggered an 18-2 run against a beat-up Pistons’ second unit, sending the Spurs to their fifth straight win, 119-107, at Little Caesars Arena.
"You can't believe all that stuff about their regime being over," Casey said after the game. "They've got Hall of Fame players in LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan and they have a great program that they have built over time."
DeRozan ended up with 26 points (12-for-21 shooting) and nine assists. He also had seven rebounds, two steals and two blocks.
The Pistons, losers of five of their last six, are now 4-14 since point guard Ish Smith, the catalyst of the second-unit, went out with an adductor injury. Backup center ZaZa Pachulia (leg contusion) is also out, and his absence especially was felt in the decisive second quarter.
"Their second unit came in and really sped up the game," Casey said. "We didn't match that. They are an excellent shooting team, a very efficient team and if you come in and aren't ready to catch the speed of the game, that's where the issue is."
The Pistons, like they did Saturday in a loss to Utah, got off to a strong start, building a 21-9 lead and forcing Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to call timeouts in back-to-back possessions and sub out four of his starters.
The Spurs closed the quarter strong and cut the lead to six. The Pistons opened the second quarter with their second unit, plus center Andre Drummond, who played all 12 minutes of the first quarter, who stayed in for Pachulia.
Notably, Blake Griffin was also on the bench.
The results were bad for the home team. The Pistons went empty in their first eight possessions, with Drummond turning the ball over three times. They didn’t score for nearly four minutes. The Spurs turned that futility into a 12-0 spurt.
"They brought Aldridge back in and we had to make sure we had a (bigger) body on him," Casey said. "We are a little out of sorts with Zaza and Ish out. We're just trying to keep a band-aid on it until they get back."
Said Drummond, who scored 11 points in the fourth quarter and finished with 19: "I have to get adjusted to being out there with the second unit. Just trying to figure out what those guys are doing and where I need to be on the floor to get them in the best position to be successful.
"If it happens again, I will watch film and I'll know what I need to do better to help those guys out."
It was an 18-2 run, and a 45-33 Spurs lead, when Drummond went to the bench (slamming a chair in frustration) and Griffin re-entered. The Pistons, though, never fully recovered from that stretch.
"It's just been the last two games; I don't know if it's our calling card," said Griffin, who finished with 34 points to lead the Pistons. "Our focus and intensity has been very high to start the game the last two games. We need to be able to sustain that for a lot longer.
"We just have to find a way."
The second unit did fare a little better at the start of the fourth quarter. They used reserve Jon Leuer (10 points) at center instead of Drummond and actually cut the Spurs lead to seven.
But the age-less Aldridge converted back-to-back three-point plays to restore order with less than eight minutes to play. Aldridge finished with 25 points.
Leuer was a plus-3 in his 11 minutes. The rest of the bench combined was a minus-69.
DeRozan must have stoked some good memories for Casey, though, even if they came at the expense of his team on this night. He demonstrated all the stages of growth Casey went through with him in Toronto: the court awareness, the ability to create off pick-and-roll plays and the ability to score in isolation plays.
“He was our best passer last year,” Casey said. “He sees the court. He’s big, he’s taller than you think. His basketball IQ is off the charts. That’s what makes him such a great player. He’s so smart.”
Initially, Casey was criticized for using DeRozan in pick-and-rolls so often.
“Two years ago, we started using DeMar as a pick-and-roll player with Kyle Lowry, kind of moving Kyle to the two-position (shooting guard),” Casey said. “Everybody thought I was crazy. Now he’s one of the best passers out of the pick-and-roll. And Pop’s got him doing more of that, and more isolation — kind of back to his roots a little bit.”
The Pistons left the court to a chorus of boos from the announced crowd of 13,107. The players' frustration was just as palpable as the fans'.
"We all should be frustrated," Casey said. "If we're not, something is wrong. If everybody in that locker room isn't frustrated and upset about losing and having a losing streak, then something is wrong.
"I'm frustrated. I didn't come here to hold serve or be out of the playoffs. We're trying to build this back to being a playoff team, back to where it was. But we're not a finished product yet. We have a lot of work left to get there."