February Fizzle

Pistons drop 4th straight home game as offense wilts after hot start

TEAM COLORS

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

– Points came way too easily for Atlanta in a first half in which the Hawks shot 70 percent until Joe Johnson’s jump shot at the buzzer bounced off the rim. As it was, they shot 67.7 percent in the half and their starters made 18 of 26 shots, including 9 of 12 from starting guards Mike Bibby and Johnson. They were 4 of 5 from the 3-point arc. The Pistons took care of the basketball – going the whole first quarter without a turnover and finishing the half with four – but every time the Pistons turned it over or missed a jump shot, the Hawks ran it down their throats in transition. The Hawks wound up shooting 56.5 percent for the game.

BLUE COLLAR – Josh Smith put up big numbers for the Hawks with 27 points, 14 rebounds, three assists and three steals, numbers that stood out all the more because of the lack of production the Pistons’ frontcourt mustered. The starting frontcourt of Tayshaun Prince, Ben Wallace and Greg Monroe finished with 14 points, 13 rebounds, four assists and no steals. Smith made 11 of 17 shots.

RED FLAG – After sprinting to a 15-point lead at 39-24 early in the second quarter, the Pistons struggled to score as many points in the final 33:30 as they did in the first 14:30. The Pistons shot 14 of 26 in scoring those 39 points, including 6 of 6 from the 3-point line, but managed only 40 points thereafter and made one less basket (13) in 44 tries. They were 4 of 13 from the 3-point line after their perfect start. In the next 14 minutes 30 seconds after they scored 39 points in the first 14:30, the Pistons scored just 12 points. They went scoreless for the first 5:34 of the third quarter, allowing Atlanta to expand its two-point halftime lead to 10.

As the Pistons floundered through the season’s first three months, they kept February in their back pocket. February was the month when they had nine of 13 games at home. It was their safety net.

Um … oops.

With Monday’s loss to Atlanta, on the heels of Sunday’s loss to Portland and Friday’s to Miami, the Pistons are now 3-6 in February. They’ve lost four straight at home – all to likely playoff teams San Antonio, Miami and Portland before Atlanta – sandwiched around a road win at Cleveland. And any talk of a playoff push now seems like giddy optimism.

“Obviously, it hasn’t been going the way we wanted it,” Charlie Villanueva said after Monday’s 94-79 loss in a glum locker room. “But … I’m just worried about the next game. Indiana. Get this (All-Star) break, four or five days, whatever it is, and try to finish off strong.”

The Pistons host the Pacers on Wednesday, a team that’s won seven of eight games since making a coaching change, and then they’ll be off until Feb. 22 when Houston comes to The Palace. At 20-36, the Pistons are now eight games behind Philadelphia and Indiana, sitting in the nos. 7 and 8 playoff spots, with just 26 games to go. It’s getting close to the point where a miracle kick would be required.

“It’s an area (of the schedule) we looked at and said it’s an important stretch,” John Kuester said. “Each game is important and we’re playing quality teams. We have to play at a higher level. There’s no question.”

The level they played at for the first 14 minutes and 30 seconds of Monday’s game would be just fine. There was 9:30 left in the second quarter when a Villanueva triple gave the Pistons a 39-24 lead. It was their sixth successful 3-pointer in six tries.

But the Pistons struggled to match those 39 points in the game’s final 33 minutes and 30 seconds, scoring only 40 points from that point forward. And while the offense was humming early, it masked some of the deficiencies of a defense that allowed the Hawks to shoot nearly 70 percent in the first half. Only a last-possession miss by Joe Johnson dropped the Hawks below 70 as they finished the first half at 21 of 31 for 67.7 percent. By that point, they’d come all the way back to take a two-point lead.

“We were making shots. We were in a nice rhythm,” Kuester said. “Charlie had it going. We had a number of people going and the flow of the game was great for us. We just couldn’t sustain it and that’s disappointing.”

The Pistons appeared lethargic in the third quarter, getting a brief spark off the bench from Will Bynum, who briefly helped them cut a 10-point deficit to five. But when Kuester turned the fourth quarter over to a five-man bench unit – as he’s taken to doing it lately, with generally positive results – the Pistons went into another extended drought.

A pretty Bynum feed that produced a Villaneuva layup got the fourth quarter started, pulling them within six. But the Pistons missed their next 12 shots. By the time DaJuan Summers came off the bench to nail a 16-footer, the Pistons trailed by 17 and the game was down to its final two minutes.

“We had the 15-point lead and we just couldn’t score,” said Austin Daye, who contributed three 3-pointers as the Pistons built their early lead. “They made a defensive change and we didn’t make the offensive adjustment like we should have. They’re a good team and they score at will. But we just didn’t make the offensive change.”

When the Pistons dribbled out the last possession, the game impossibly out of reach, the few thousand fans that remained booed them into the night.

“I would have booed, too,” Villaneuva said. “Having a lead like that and letting it slip away and losing by so many points I would have booed, too.”