ATLANTA – If it had been a football game, the Pistons would have been gashed by the simple off tackle play. Above all else, the bedrock of Lawrence Frank’s defense-first philosophy is to keep the ball from denting the paint.
The Hawks did it early and often. And they did it late – less frequently, but at great cost – as Atlanta snapped the Pistons’ three-game winning streak, spurting last in a game of runs for a 101-96 win Friday night at Philips Arena.
“Defensive breakdowns,” Rodney Stuckey muttered, his feet plunged into ice water, after a brilliant 27-point performance off the bench in his second game back from a hamstring injury. “It shouldn’t have happened, but it did. We still were in the game, but we fell short.”
The Hawks scored 46 of their 78 points through three quarters in the paint, better than 15 points a quarter. The Pistons – thanks mostly to a second unit, led by Stuckey, that clearly carried them in both halves – limited Atlanta to eight such points in the fourth quarter. But a damaging two came with 1:20 left when Jeff Teague, who lived in the paint and terrorized the Pistons with 24 points and 11 assists, got inside one final time and dropped an easy feed to Ivan Johnson for a layup that put the Hawks ahead by five and let the air out of the Pistons.
Frank talked before the game of the need to tighten up that particular area of team defense one night after Washington’s John Wall, by Frank’s tally, got inside the paint a whopping 28 times.
“We can clean it up – we’ve just got to put more into it,” Frank said. “It’s two point guards, back-to-back nights. It’s not one on one, it’s a total commitment to get back, form a wall, load to the ball so there are no seams. It falls on a lot of different shoulders, but we have to be better. It’s the foundation of what we do. Every single day, what we’re about is getting back and getting our defense set and we couldn’t do that enough.”
The Pistons fell behind 11-2 to start the game, surged to take a 16-15 lead, then fell behind by eight again – all before the first quarter was out. Led by their second unit, they went on an 11-0 second-quarter run before Atlanta’s starters dominated the final minutes prior to halftime to regain a nine-point lead. The Hawks led by 10 going into the fourth quarter when the second unit again launched a 9-0 run and eventually pushed into an 83-80 lead.
But the Hawks turned to Teague and Josh Smith for a handful of big plays in their closing rush, outscoring the Pistons 21-13 over the final seven minutes. Teague finished with 24 points and 11 assists with only two turnovers, Smith with 22 points and 12 boards.
“We’ve got to do a better job of keeping them out of the paint,” Greg Monroe said. “It’s simple. We can’t let them get easy buckets at the rim. It’s team defense. It’s something we still have to get better at. (Teague) had a big game tonight. It’s team defense. We have to keep working at it.”
“Jeff Teague did a phenomenal job of getting in the paint,” Stuckey said. “He pretty much killed us tonight. Josh Smith … he’s having a phenomenal year. They were getting in the paint all night.”
The Pistons caused problems of their own for Atlanta, none of which came as a surprise to Hawks coach Larry Drew or his players. The Pistons had split the previous two games with Atlanta and it took a frantic rally by the Hawks to win the first of those two in overtime.
“I knew coming into this game it was going to be a really hard-fought game,” Drew said. “Their team is much better than their record indicates. They’re a hard team for us to play against.”
“Detroit has been tough on us all season long and tonight was no exception,” Atlanta’s Marvin Williams said. “When you get them down, they don’t quit. Their defense got them back in the game, and we had to make some plays in the fourth quarter to pull it out.”
Stuckey, who mildly reaggravated the toe injury that caused him to miss three games last month but said he’ll be fine for Miami on Sunday, did his best to return volleys with Teague, attacking the rim frequently enough to get 11 free-throw attempts. Two other players off the bench – Will Bynum with 15 and Jonas Jerebko with 10 – scored in double figures for the Pistons, a threshold matched by only two starters, Tayshaun Prince (10) and Brandon Knight (13).
“The bench, once again, was very, very good,” Frank said. “We had solid contributions from different guys. We played hard. But we want to win the game.”
The Pistons had convenient crutches to lean on for this one. They had to grind out a tough win the night before and travel while Atlanta was off and home waiting for them. They’ve been on the road for 19 days since March 11. But they felt this was a game they could have won if they hadn’t broken down so thoroughly in an area of the game that Frank can’t abide breakdowns.
“The easy transition buckets, the amount of layups, the amount of paint points – all those add up,” he said. “It’s a shame, because we’re working our tails off to get back. But we have to make the game a little easier by being better.”