Not Quite Enough

Pistons keep coming back, but can’t overtake Atlanta

TEAM COLORS

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

– Chris Wilcox made 9 of 10 shots and gave the Pistons great production off the bench with 18 points and four rebounds. His production could have been even better if not for foul trouble. Wilcox picked up three fouls in the first half, then got slapped with his fourth and fifth within the first three minutes of the fourth quarter and had to go to the bench shortly after making a beautiful baseline move around Zaza Pachulia. He didn’t re-enter the game and finished with just 18 minutes played. Dogged by nagging injuries in his two seasons with the Pistons, a healthy Wilcox is playing his best basketball since signing as a free agent in the summer of 2009.

BLUE COLLAR – Greg Monroe racked up his 16th double-double with 17 points and 10 boards, adding three steals and two assists. He also showed a toughness that was a question mark for some a year ago as scouts were assessing his NBA prospects. In the fourth quarter, Monroe went hard to the basket and went up to dunk with Hawks shot-blocking ace Josh Smith closing on him. Smith got enough of a hand on the ball to not only alter the shot – yet Monroe followed through with enough force so that the ball found its way through the basket – but to throw off Monroe’s balance. He crashed hard to the floor with his wrist pinned dangerously under his body, but got up – remarkably, there was no foul called on the play – and managed to get back into the play defensively at the other end. He would stay on and finish the game. Monroe’s 10 boards gave him 481 for the season, moving him ahead of Jonas Jerebko into third on the franchise’s all-time rookie list. He needs 46 to move past Leon Douglas for second. Terry Tyler (648) is No. 1.

RED FLAG – On a Sunday matinee in the season’s 69th game, it probably shouldn’t be a great surprise that Pistons veterans looked like they had dead legs. Rip Hamilton, back with the Pistons after being away since Thursday to attend his grandfather’s funeral, shot 2 of 9, missed both his 3-point attempts and managed only two free throws. He finished with six points. Ben Wallace played only 17 minutes and had three rebounds, no blocks and no steals. Tracy McGrady had four points and shot 2 of 8 in 26 minutes. Tayshaun Prince shot 5 of 13 for 10 points – the only starter other than Monroe in double figures.

In the span of one Sunday matinee squeezed between the NCAA’s weekend orgy of basketball, the Pistons showed both why they believed they had playoff potential and why they didn’t realize it often enough to make it a reality.

Against an Atlanta team humbled by a Friday thrashing at Miami’s hands and looking to build momentum for its own playoff drive after losing five of its last six at home, the Pistons battled uphill all day – putting on impressive bursts to prevent the Hawks from pulling away and again revealing the depth they felt would be a strength, but ultimately losing because of too many stretches where execution betrayed them in a 104-96 loss that drops them to 25-45 with a dozen games remaining.

Take three stretches that spanned the midway point of the third quarter to the midway point of the third. Two of them were bad, the first allowing Atlanta to build a 14-point lead and the third allowing the Hawks to pull away again after a Charlie Villanueva 3-pointer to open the fourth quarter pulled them within two.

“It’s definitely a tough way to lose,” rookie Greg Monroe said after another strong outing. “We did a good job of (withstanding) all their runs, we just couldn’t overcome them.”

It was an 11-0 run by Atlanta that opened its 14-point lead. It had reached 12 with 5:33 left when John Kuester called timeout and moved Rodney Stuckey in for Rip Hamilton, who struggled to a 2-of-9 shooting performance upon returning to the team after being away since Thursday to attend his grandfather’s funeral. Led by Stuckey (22 points, eight assists) and rookie Greg Monroe (17 points, 10 rebounds), the Pistons outscored Atlanta 16-7 to close the third quarter.

But after Villanueva’s triple to open the fourth, the Pistons allowed the Hawks to go on a 13-4 run immediately to put them back in another deep hole. To their credit, they fought back yet again – Josh Smith’s shot-clock beating basket over Austin Daye in the post with 52 seconds left was the dagger, putting them down by five – but, as has been the case too often all season, their best stretches weren’t quite enough to overcome their worst.

“I thought our guys played hard and I was proud of their effort,” Kuester said. “You dig yourself a hole. They made big shots, came up with shots at the end of the shock clock. We needed a stop. I thought we had done a great job, they throw it up with two seconds to go and it goes in.”

Hamilton returned to the starting lineup, but he and the other Pistons veterans struggled. Take away Monroe’s 17 points and the other four starters combined for just 22 points, 10 of them from Tayshaun Prince.

Strong bench play carried them – just as it did in Friday’s win over the Knicks, when Kuester got 54 points from his reserves. Besides Stuckey’s 22, Chris Wilcox dropped in 18 despite dodging foul trouble, as the bench accounted for 57 of Detroit’s 96 points.

“We just missed some tough shots and we didn’t get the stops we needed on the other end,” Wilcox said. “That’s what cost us the game tonight.”

It could just as easily be the epitaph for any number of the other 44 games the Pistons have lost this season, which best explains why the playoffs that start in about four weeks aren’t likely to include them for a second straight spring.