By a Nose

Pistons hang on, showing their growth by turning tables on Hawks

TEAM COLORS

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

White Hot – Turnabout might be fair play, but it was very nearly a bitter pill for the Pistons. Nine days after the Pistons wiped out a 22-point deficit in the fourth quarter to briefly lead before losing in double overtime at Atlanta, the Hawks almost made up a all of a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit. A 16-0 Hawks run pulled them within a point with three minutes remaining and an apparent Al Horford triple that would have tied the game with 5.6 seconds to play was instead overruled. A Pistons turnover gave the Hawks one last chance to win, but Lou Williams’ baseline jumper hit the side of the backboard and Detroit won its fourth straight, 85-84. Austin Daye scored 16 first-half points on his way to a season-best 20 and Greg Monroe added 18 points and nine boards.

BLUE COLLAR – Rodney Stuckey, playing for the first time since spraining his left ankle nine days earlier in the double-overtime loss at Atlanta, didn’t exactly ease his way back into the lineup. The Pistons trailed 18-15 with 4:15 left in the first quarter when he came on for Kyle Singler and immediately helped turn the game, leading the Pistons on a 10-2 run to close the period. When he finally exited with 4:43 in the second quarter, the Pistons had seized command, leading 43-29, a 28-11 domination for the home team with Stuckey on the floor. They would wind up needing every point of that lead to post the win. Stuckey finished with 10 points, four rebounds and two assists. Honorable mention to Jason Maxiell, who finished with 10 points, 10 rebounds and three blocked shots, including a crucial one at the rim of Zaza Pachulia in the closing minutes.

RED FLAG – Once the Pistons dominated from late in the first quarter to midway through the second quarter, turning a four-point deficit into an 18-point lead, the closest Atlanta got until their late run was 11 points late in the third quarter. But the Pistons left the door wide open for the Hawks by going through a long drought that spanned the last two quarters, scoring just five points over a string of 10 possessions. A rash of Atlanta turnovers – four in its first six possessions of the fourth quarter – prevented the Hawks from cutting too deeply into the lead until they caught fire. Always best to put the hammer down when you have the chance. The Pistons could have been ahead by 25 and caused the Hawks to wave the white flag instead of letting them hang around.

If the Pistons somehow manage to dramatically turn around a season that saw them scrape bottom at 14 games under .500 just a little over two weeks ago, as now at least appears more than a fuzzy possibility, there likely will be a handful of wins as candidates for launching points.

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.”