Charlotte, on the final leg of a wearying six-game road trip that sent the Bobcats to the West Coast and back, is one of the teams the Pistons must beat out to land one of the East’s last two playoff berths.
And after a sluggish first half in which they shot under 40 percent and were outboarded 28-16, a fast start to the third quarter had them on track to score a win that could have launched them to a big February that features nine home games among their 13 – seven of those home dates in a 15-day span leading to the All-Star break that began with Charlotte.
But the Bobcats buried them with a fourth-quarter burst, a 10-0 run in the first two minutes that became a 13-0 run and finally a 16-1 run to give Charlotte an 18-point lead with eight minutes left. The Pistons cut it to seven and had two chances to cut further into the lead in the final three minutes, but lost 97-87 to fall five games behind Charlotte in the loss column for the final playoff spot.
“This one hurts a lot,” Austin Daye said, “especially since that’s a team we are trying to chase down in the East.”
The fourth quarter opened much like Sunday’s in New York, when the Knicks got a 3-pointer on the first possession to snap a 91-all tie and the Pistons had an answering triple from Charlie Villanueva rim in and out, fueling a 10-2 Knicks run that blew open the game. This time it was Daye, seconds after Stephen Jackson’s triple – Jackson killed the Pistons with a season-high 39 points – doubled the Bobcats’ three-point lead, who had a clean look at a corner triple but saw it rim out.
“A couple of (Pistons shots) were great looks – not good looks,” John Kuester said. “We had great looks, but the ball just wouldn’t go down. It’s disappointing, but we’ve got to regroup. The bottom line is we’ve got a lot of basketball left. We’ve got to stay positive and work hard. We’ve got to grind.”
The evidence of this loss’ sting was all over the mostly empty locker room by the time the media entered. The few players who remained were sullen.
“We’ve got to beat them,” Villanueva said. “It was not the way we wanted to start off the month. Guys were frustrated. Guys hate losing, especially a game like this. It wasn’t happy (in the locker room) at all.”
Midway through the third quarter, it appeared the Pistons had seized control of the game. Greg Monroe and Kwame Brown exchanged inside baskets to start the quarter, but then the Pistons got layups from Ben Gordon and Chris Wilcox and a dunk from Wilcox, in addition to a Wilcox free throw, giving them four easy baskets on their first four possessions of the third quarter. A few minutes later, they were up 56-48 and about to take a double-digit lead, converting a Tracy McGrady steal into a two-on-one fast break with Ben Gordon and Tayshaun Prince.
But Prince couldn’t corral a Gordon pass and wound up missing a jump shot to end that possession and 72 seconds later the Bobcats had forged a tie.
“We’ve got to convert those,” Kuester said. “No question about it. Those are the little things. We had that eight-point lead and it evaporated quickly.”
“They made a run and we didn’t have an answer for it,” Villanueva said. “We dug ourselves into a hole late into the fourth and they took advantage of it.”
The Pistons had hoped to take advantage of a friendly February schedule. They still could. But a team running out of chances now has one less.