So what everybody, really, save for Tayshaun Prince and Jason Maxiell, experienced in a throbbing United Center on a frigid January Wednesday was as close to playoff basketball as the Pistons have experienced in their current iteration.
There was some cruel irony, I suppose, in the fact that in their attempt to avoid a 17th consecutive loss to Chicago, the Pistons built a 17-point lead, saw it wiped out, came back from six down to lead and then – with all the quick-twitch fury 7-footer Joakim Noah could muster – they lost on a you-gotta-see-it-to-believe-it play in the last 10 seconds.
Noah dived headlong across the baseline and whipped a blind saving pass that hit Marco Belinelli in stride for a layup as Rodney Struckey clutched helplessly at him, fouling him in the process to put the Pistons behind 85-82 with 7.5 seconds left. The Pistons got two clean looks to tie, first from Prince and then from Stuckey, both bouncing off the rim.
“I told the guys before the game, ‘If you want to win, you’ve got to match their energy throughout the whole game – don’t just match it for 3½ quarters,’ ” Prince said. “And look what happened.”
What happened is the Bulls scored the game’s first two points, the Pistons rattled off the next 12 and then controlled the game with very little variance for three full quarters. The Bulls closed to within five late in the second quarter, but a 12-0 run that bridged the middle quarters put the Pistons ahead 55-38 with 10:23 remaining.
That’s when the first sign of trouble emerged. The Pistons took three straight rushed shots at a time they could have blown the out-of-sync Bulls – still playing without Derrick Rose but also down Luol Deng, as well – out of their own building.
“We had control of the game and it’s another one of those games where we lost control in the fourth quarter, but still, there were a lot of plays I could have made before that,” Monroe said. “We wouldn’t have been in the predicament we were. It’s definitely a tough loss. We were in position to win, but I think this game, the opportunities we had earlier in the game to make the deficit even bigger for them kind of came back to haunt us.”
Lawrence Frank acknowledged the offensive woes – the Pistons opened the fourth quarter 2 of 14 – but ultimately pointed the finger at the defensive end. He cited Chicago’s game last Friday at Boston, where the Bulls had a stretch late in the game in which they shot 1 of 12 and committed six turnovers yet won because they turned Boston’s offense equally impotent.
The Bulls, who shot under 40 percent through three quarters, made 8 of 11 to open the fourth during a 22-5 spurt. All the Pistons’ misses gave Chicago transition chances and that played into the hands of mercurial mighty mite Nate Robinson, who scored 9 of his 11 in the decisive run.
“We went dry,” Frank said. “We had some good looks, but we had two field goals in the first seven minutes. Especially on the road, when things aren’t going your way, we have to maintain our poise, our discipline, our execution on both ends to win the game, especially against a playoff-tested team like this on their court. We have to play with more poise and discipline down the stretch.”
If there was a sliver of sunlight to take away, it was the response once Chicago built a 79-73 lead with 4:22 left and the building abuzz – truly a playoff-level electricity. The Pistons bounced back with a 7-0 run, scoring on three straight possessions.
“We’ve just got to be able to move on earlier than we did,” Frank said. “We showed the resolve to answer back and make some key plays down the stretch to put it into a situation where it could have been an overtime game.”
That it wasn’t is a testament to Noah’s relentlessness. After destroying the Pistons with 30 points and 23 rebounds in their most recent meeting, Noah was a little more subdued this time, though his 18 rebounds in 45 exhausting minutes were significant. The diving save to Belinelli, though, was a dagger. Knight pulled up, certain the ball was headed out of bounds and wisely not risking having it deflect off of him, when Noah knifed past him into the Luv-a-Bulls. Frank initially thought the ball was out of bounds before Noah got to it, but replays indicated it was likely a good save.
“It looked close, but I would have to see the replay,” Monroe said. “They were pretty sure he wasn’t out of bounds. But that play wasn’t the play that lost the game for us.”
But it was a play that will linger in their memories and be added as a historical footnote to what now stands as tied for the second-longest losing streak to another franchise in Pistons history. When all those young players who’ve never experienced the playoffs finally get there, maybe the trauma of this frigid January Wednesday in Chicago will serve them well. Until then, well, it just burns.
“The last three or four times we’ve played then, we’ve had leads throughout the whole three quarters, especially the last few times we’ve played them here,” Prince said. “We’ve had good leads where we should’ve come out with a win.”