AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – The Detroit Pistons knew they were going to have a talented young bench this season.
Now, with the playoffs fast approaching, they are starting to understand just how good the group has become.
Sunday, facing a Toronto team trying to lock up the Eastern Conference’s sixth seed, the Pistons pulled away down the stretch to win 91-84 even though all five starters were resting comfortably on the bench.
“Our bench was great again,” coach Flip Saunders said. “Not just offensively, but with the energy they bring defensively. They get how we want to play against teams.”
Detroit finished the game with its “Zoo Squad” – Jarvis Hayes, Amir Johnson, Jason Maxiell and rookies Arron Afflalo and Rodney Stuckey. The group averages just 22.8 years of age, but the youngsters have proven their worth in back-to-back wins over Washington and Toronto.
“They would definitely be a playoff team,” veteran Chauncey Billups said. “Look what they are doing with 20-something minutes a night, and imagine what they could do with 34 or 35. They’ve beaten playoff teams the last two games – teams that are playing hard and have their starters in late.”
Billups isn’t alone in his opinion.
“There aren’t many teams that can bring in a group like that,” said Chris Bosh, who had 30 points for the Raptors. “Those five guys could start for a lot of teams in this league.”
The loss drops Toronto (40-40) into a tie with Philadelphia for the Eastern Conference’s sixth seed with two games left, although the Raptors have the tiebreaker. The sixth seed will play Orlando in the first round, while the seventh seed faces Detroit.
“We’ve been struggling for a while now – that’s no secret – and tonight we had to go up against one of the best teams in the league,” Rasho Nesterovic said after Toronto dropped to 8-16 in its last 24 games. “Whoever we play in the first round, we’re going to have to change our mentality if we want to have a chance.”
The score was tied at 65 early in the fourth when the Pistons turned the game over to the kids. Stuckey and Maxiell combined for 18 points in the period, and Detroit outshot Toronto 60 per cent to 42 per cent.
“I’m just attacking, and I feel that nobody can stop my drive,” Stuckey said. “I love contact, so I’m going at the big guys, no matter who it is. It’s all about being aggressive.”
Stuckey led the Pistons with 18 points, while Maxiell and Billups added 14 each.
Bosh had his 30 and Nesterovic added 18, but T.J. Ford (10) was the only other player to reach double figures.
“C.B. was great and Rasho was solid, but we didn’t get much from the rest of the team,” Toronto coach Sam Mitchell said. “They are just a great defensive team – they took away a lot of the things that we wanted to do.”
Detroit used all 12 players before halftime, but still took a 50-45 advantage into the break. The Pistons outrebounded Toronto 23-13 in the half, including a 7-2 edge on the offensive glass.
Notes: None of the Detroit starters played more than 25 minutes, and none were on the floor in the final 11 minutes. All 12 Pistons played at least 10 minutes. … The Pistons finished with 26 assists and only 11 turnovers, while the Raptors barely broke even, getting 14 assists against 13 turnovers.