By a Nose
But there will only be one loss in the running as the season’s pivotal game.
The Pistons built a 17-point fourth-quarter lead at The Palace on Friday night, then weathered Atlanta’s 16-0 run, an apparent tying 3-pointer with 5.6 seconds left later reduced to a 2-pointer, and finally a game-winning attempt at the buzzer out of Lou Williams’ hand for an 85-84 win – their fourth straight.
The last loss? To those same Atlanta Hawks, nine nights ago, in a game that was the mirror image of this one – everything reversed. That night, the Hawks led by 22 before the Pistons came back in the fourth quarter only to lose in double overtime.
At the end of regulation that night, the Pistons leading by a point, Atlanta inbounded the ball to Al Horford, who faked a handoff that deked Andre Drummond and forced a foul that allowed Horford to tie the game at the foul line.
At the end of regulation this night, the Pistons again leading by a point, Atlanta again inbounded to Horford. This time, Drummond kept his feet and the defense rotated appropriately, freeing Drummond to fly at red-hot Lou Williams and get a piece of his baseline jumper to ice the win.
“Fool me once,” said Drummond, 19 but growing up by the game, “can’t fool me twice.”
Horford hit the apparent 3-pointer with 5.6 seconds to play to momentarily tie the game at 85, but officials Bennett Salvatore, Kevin Fehr and Gary Zielinski huddled during the timeout and ruled Horford’s right foot was grazing the line.
“I thought it was a three,” Lawrence Frank said. “I guess my eyesight is going. Thank God for instant replay. It worked for us.”
“We’ve learned from our mistakes,” said Austin Daye, offensive star to Drummond’s defensive ace with 20 points, 16 in the first half when the Pistons turned an early four-point deficit into an 18-point lead with a dominant 36-14 stretch. “It’s so hard to take losses the way we’ve taken losses, but we’ve done a great job of learning from our mistakes and making corrections. Even the last play of the game, they were trying to run the slip play just like they did the last time and Dre was able to come up with a big block.”
There were other offensive stars and other defensive standouts, as has been the norm during a period where the bench takes as many star turns as the starters. Jason Maxiell posted a double-double (10 points, 10 boards) and two of his three blocked shots came on consecutive Atlanta possessions in the final 91 seconds with the Pistons clinging to a three-point lead and their offense seizing.
“This is the second game in a row where Max, down the stretch, made some huge energy, hustle plays,” Lawrence Frank said. “Give him credit. He’s sitting there for a while and to respond and do what he did, those are the type of winning plays that we need.”
Drummond, Maxiell and Greg Monroe helped the Pistons dominate the backboards and the paint, which has also become standard fare lately for a team that opened the season getting pounded on the boards and giving up far too many second-chance points. The Pistons came into the game owning a 53-41 average spread in points in the paint over their last four games and widened it with a 52-34 edge over the Hawks. They crushed Atlanta on the glass, 56-38, with Maxiell, Drummond and Monroe combining for 28.
It was headed for a win every bit as dominant as those numbers might suggest, too, until the Pistons got stagnant offensively late in the third quarter and early in the fourth. Atlanta’s comeback might have started even earlier and gathered an avalanche’s momentum if the Hawks hadn’t committed four early fourth-quarter turnovers.
The lead was still at 17 with seven minutes to play when the Hawks’ 16-0 run began. The Pistons went 0 for 5 – missing three 3-pointers and two other jump shots – and turned the ball over twice in that span, which began with an Atlanta four-point play.
“We just stopped moving the ball,” Frank said. “We didn’t get the rhythm shots we needed to get. You miss some shots in the paint, then you start pressing a little bit. That’s when we’ve got to trust our stuff a little more and keep moving the ball, moving bodies.”
At least the Pistons keep moving the needle, winning nearly as many games in the past two weeks – six – as they did up until that point. They were 7-21 after losing to Toronto on Dec. 19, 6-1 since.
“It was huge,” Monroe said. “Find a way to get another win. We did have a letdown down the stretch, but we found a way to win the game. (Last week’s loss at Atlanta) could have gone either way. Tonight, we just wanted to continue what we’ve been doing the last few games. That was a few games back. We’ve gotten a lot better since that game.”