Sour Notes

TEAM COLORS

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

White Hot – Coming into the game as one of the hottest teams in the league – 7-2 in their last nine games, a streak bettered only by the Clippers and Pacers – the Pistons stumbled badly after taking a 13-point first-quarter lead and lost 90-87 to longtime nemesis Utah. The Pistons managed to score only 11 third-quarter points, yet trailed by just three points going into the fourth quarter. Utah hit 3 of 4 from the 3-point line in the final quarter to build a double-digits lead at a time the Pistons were struggling to generate any offense. A wild comeback that cut Utah’s lead to two with 27 seconds left fell short when Brandon Knight’s attempt to tie at the buzzer fell short.

BLUE COLLAR – Utah turned the game into a mud bath in the second half and no stat better exemplifies it than points in the paint in the third quarter, which Utah dominated 18-2. Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap particularly vexed the Pistons as they bullied them for a combined 16 points and seven rebounds as the Jazz outscored Detroit 25-11 in the period. Jefferson finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds and Millsap with 17 and seven as Utah won the interior battle.

RED FLAG – The Pistons let all of a 13-point third quarter lead get away in a matter of just six minutes – from the 10-minute mark of the third quarter to the four-minute mark – 24 hours after playing a sublime third quarter to score their biggest road win of the season at Milwaukee. At a juncture when they could have put away a Utah team that had lost at Atlanta the night before and appeared sluggish, they failed to respond as Utah became overly aggressive and physical defensively.

The Utah Jazz, continuing a tradition begun under Jerry Sloan, are one of the rare teams that chooses to play defense on the end opposite their bench in the second half on the road. The vast majority of coaches prefer their defense closest to them at winning time to make communication clearer in calling out opposition plays.

That put Lawrence Frank out of the coach’s box early in the fourth quarter, the game tied at 68, and technically – ironic word – in violation of the rules as he tried to talk to his defense. Referee Scott Wall wouldn’t let it slide. Gordon Hayward made the free throw to give Utah a one-point lead in a game where every point would be precious.

“I was just communicating to our team, but they said I was on the court and automatically gave a T,” Frank said. “I’m not going to get into officiating, but all those things add up.”

It certainly appeared a big point when the Pistons were inbounding the ball with 4.1 seconds left, trailing by three instead of two – severely limiting their options and giving Utah carte blanche to overextend its defense to the 3-point line. DeMarre Carroll did just that, coming off of Austin Daye to flash at Brandon Knight as his 26-footer only traveled about 24 feet.

That caused Frank to come out of the coach’s box, too, to share some thoughts with Wall, who was closest to the play but chose not to make a call.

“It was a good defensive play,” Knight said, biting his tongue hard enough that his jaw clenched. “But, for me, a shot like that just doesn’t come up short just because. Either he tipped it, hit my arm or something like that happened.” Well, which was it? “He hit some part of the ball, some part of my arm – I’m really not sure. It ended up being a short shot, so nothing I can do about it now.”

There were another half-dozen isolated plays that stand out, as always is the case in games like the 90-87 loss to Utah on Saturday, but there was one overriding theme that will send the Pistons to London lamenting a missed opportunity. Up 13 after a first quarter nearly as cleanly played as their dominant second half to spark Friday’s stirring road win over Milwaukee, the Pistons just didn’t respond very well when Utah – as Utah is wont to do – got overtly physical and turned the game into a sumo wrestling match, correctly gauging the officials’ willingness to allow rough-and-tumble basketball.

“Came out in the third quarter, they kind of hit us and we didn’t fight back and got into a hole,” Jason Maxiell said. “Come to the fourth quarter and made it a game and they came out on top.”

“We just have to do a better job of being able to fight back,” Knight said. “They came out in the third quarter early and punched us in the face and there was nothing really we could do about it. Instead of us just fighting back, we just kind of laid down a little bit.”

Utah outscored the Pistons 25-11 in the quarter, dominating at the rim. Points in the paint were 18-2. Yeah, it was that one-sided as Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap bulled their way for dunk after layup after dunk.

“For the last 18 years,” Frank said, “if you’re not the instigator against them, you’re going to have a hard time. You have to hit first. They’re a physical team. That’s their brand of basketball. That’s how they’ll always be. That’s their culture, so there’s no surprise, but it’s the reality of dealing with it. You have to give them credit. They were able to play their game for 36 minutes.”

It was a five-point Utah lead midway through the fourth quarter when the Jazz went on a 9-1 run to lead by 13 with 3:26 to play. Led by Will Bynum, who scored 13 points to go with two assists and two steals in the fourth quarter, the Pistons fought furiously back. Bynum’s steal that fed Knight’s layup with 27 seconds left cut the Utah lead to 89-87. Frank elected not to foul, calling it a “gray area” – with 28 seconds, he said, he’d always just play for the stop and get the ball back.

The Pistons wound up fouling Millsap with 4.1 seconds remaining out of a scramble and he gave the Jazz a three-point lead by splitting the pair. Daye was the first option on the final play, but he was blanketed at the top of the 3-point arc and hit Knight off a Prince screen near the Detroit bench.

So the Pistons were that close to winning eight out of 10 and going to London feeling especially good about themselves. Instead …

“It was a good win last night and coming into today we had a good feeling about this game,” Maxiell said. “Going off to London, we had a great vibe going on and it came down to a tough loss tonight.”