Bitter Pill

Tough calls in last 10 seconds go against Pistons in wrenching loss

TEAM COLORS

The story of the game in Pistons red, white and blue

– Without Chris Bosh (ankle) and Dwyane Wade (wrist), it was déjà vu all over again for LeBron James as a one-man band. With his teammates struggling to score and the 3-point shooters Pat Riley amassed to surround his big three ice cold – Mike Miller, Eddie House and James Jones were 2 of 15 from the arc and Miami 5 of 24 – it was all LeBron, all the time. James carried the Heat, scoring 30 of their 64 points through three quarters and finishing with 39 to go with eight boards and nine assists.

BLUE COLLAR – Chris Wilcox didn’t draw the start for the Pistons as John Kuester matched up with the Heat’s injury-induced lineup reconfiguration, putting Austin Daye in against James Jones. But Wilcox came off the bench and logged 28 minutes and notched a double-double with 10 points and 10 boards. His athleticsm caused Miami trouble, especially on the offensive boards. Eight of Wilcox’s 10 rebounds came at that end, helping the Pistons to an 18-6 edge in second-chance points.

RED FLAG – Playing shorthanded – Ben Wallace (family matter), Rodney Stuckey (right shoulder contusion) and Rip Hamilton (flu) all were unavailable – the Pistons played solid defense, rebounded the ball well and led for the vast majority of the night and by as many as 10 points late in the third quarter. But except for an 11-of-12 start to the third quarter, their shooting betrayed them for too much of the night. Austin Daye, Tracy McGrady and Charlie Villanueva were a combined 3 of 22 in the first half. Something even close to characteristic shooting from one or two of them would have resulted in a comfortable halftime lead instead of the three-point edge the Pistons took into the second half.

MIAMI - LeBron James committed heresy when he compared the Miami Heat’s road-show allure to the mythic aura of the Beatles. But it was more like Paul McCartney the Pistons got Friday night – a one-man band, but a pretty darn good one.

With Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade out with injuries, the Heat – as the Cavaliers did so often the past seven seasons – leaned hard on James all night. But with the Pistons one point ahead and under 10 seconds to go, it was Eddie House – not LeBron, who had scored 39 of the Heat’s 86 points in the buildup to that moment – with the ball in his hands going up for a game-winner.

Ben Gordon looked like he got all ball, but the whistle went against him. And after two House free throws with 6.5 seconds left put Miami ahead, Austin Daye never heard the whistle he had valid reason to expect would put him at the line with a chance to win the game. Daye, taking a pinpoint inbounds lob from Tayshaun Prince with 2.7 seconds left, got hit in the chest by James Jones as he was about to dunk the winning points – but no call was made.

So one call that went against them and one non-call that never came their way, about four seconds apart, conspired to prevent the Pistons from notching an unlikely sweep of Florida. After upsetting Orlando on the road on Monday, the Pistons came within one point – and two head-scratching referees’ decisions in the final 10 seconds – of knocking off the Heat in Miami, losing 88-87.

“I missed it,” Daye shrugged. “Maybe I got a little contact, but I still figured I should have finished it. It was a rough ending to a good game.”

When I asked Daye if he expected to hear the whistle as the contact with Jones moved him visibly back toward the baseline, he said, “It’s my second year, right? I really don’t expect to hear it. Not like that. Not on a play like that. Eddie House did a good job of knocking down clutch free throws. It’s pretty tough.”

The reactions of all Pistons on the floor – and John Kuester on the sidelines – the foul Danny Crawford whistled on House spoke far louder than anything the Pistons said after the game about that call.

“I thought it was good D,” Gordon said, “but I guess I got a piece of his arm. I thought I made contact with the basketball. I tried to challenge it as best I could without falling, but the call went the other way and that’s what it was.”

“It was a close call,” Kuester said. “I thought he did a great job defensively. I couldn’t make that call.” Of the non-call on Daye, Kuester said he had yet to see the replay and kept a stiff upper lip.

“I didn’t see the contact,” Kuester said. “I haven’t seen a replay. Tayshaun made a great pass. I thought Austin had a great opportunity.”

The maddening ending undermined a solid effort for the Pistons that was only a more characteristic shooting performance short of yielding another exhilarating win. Tracy McGrady came up two rebounds shy of a triple-double – 14 points, 10 assists. Gordon scored 21 hard-earned points.

Daye had a big performance with 19 points and nine boards in 42 minutes, drawing the start at power forward as Kuester chose to match up with the Heat, who moved James to power forward and James Jones and Mike Miller into the starting lineup for Bosh and Wade. It was Daye’s triple with 1:07 left, after he chased down an offensive rebound, that gave the Pistons an 87-86 lead.

The Pistons needed extended minutes from several players, too – Prince, Gordon and McGrady all played 38-plus in addition to Daye’s 42 – because the Heat weren’t the only team playing shorthanded. Ben Wallace wasn’t with the team, tending to a family matter. Rip Hamilton was still out with the flu. And Rodney Stuckey sat this one out with the right shoulder contusion suffered in Wednesday’s loss to Denver.

“I’m so proud of our guys,” Kuester said. “They’re playing so hard and trying to do things the right way. We didn’t shoot the ball particularly well tonight, but when that happens your defense has to get better and I think our defense has.”

It was good enough to force Eddie House, and not LeBron James, to take the game’s biggest shot. And the Pistons left Miami feeling it was good enough to give them a win they deserved.