On a night Frank had to make things up on the fly due to foul trouble (Jason Maxiell picked up three quick ones, then two more in the third quarter), injury (Andre Drummond left after four first-half minutes with a back that stiffened on him for the second straight game) and some up-and-down bench play (Charlie Villanueva and Rodney Stuckey shot a combined 3 of 15), the Pistons didn’t have the margin for error to overcome a good closing burst by Brooklyn’s big three.
Williams, Johnson and Lopez – who combined for 45 points, six under their cumulative season average – scored 11 of Brooklyn’s final 13 points in a 93-90 win that saw the Pistons lead by 13 early and fail to send it to overtime when Will Bynum’s contested triple at the buzzer fell well short.
“That’s what those guys are paid to do – they’re closers, probably none bigger than Brook,” said Frank, who coached Lopez and holds him in high regard. “Those guys make big shots.”
The takeaway for the Pistons in this game, though, broke down along two lines: how much they miss what Drummond brings and how significant the impact of Jose Calderon can eventually become.
Drummond warmed up and felt fine, but he wasn’t running like the antelope he usually resembles upon entering the game for Maxiell late in the first quarter. But he says he felt fine until getting bowled over when Andray Blatche stuck a shoulder in his chest to pick up a charging foul with 9:38 left in the second quarter.
“It’s not my back – it’s my tailbone,” he said. “I fell on it the wrong way in the Laker game. I just need a day or two and I’m good. I felt good. Just after I took that charge, it hit me again. It’s tough. I couldn’t be out there to help my teammates tonight. I’m just going to take care of it and I’ll be back in no time.”
The absence of Drummond was more pronounced on a night the Pistons got so little second-unit production from Villanueva and Stuckey. Bynum had it going – 13 points and seven assists in 20 minutes – but the threat of the lob connection with Drummond was removed, perhaps squeezing the space to create good shots for Stuckey and Villanueva.
“When Andre comes in the game, it’s all about energy,” Maxiell said. “He’s able to block shots and get lobs from Willy B and the point guards. With him down right now, it’s going to be a struggle.”
The frontcourt issues resulted in the first meaningful minutes of the season for the Pistons’ other athletic 7-foot rookie, Slava Kravtsov. Playing in front of his Ukrainian national team coach, Nets color analyst Mike Fratello, Kravtsov gave the Pistons a solid 11 minutes, dunking on Lopez and powering in for another score against him while picking up two rebounds and altering shots. He picked up three ill-advised fouls in his first four minutes, but other than that made no glaring errors.
“Any time a guy goes from not playing the entire season, you finally get the nod, you’re going to play with great, unharnessed energy,” Frank said. “I thought he did a good job. He impacted a bunch of shots in the paint. He ran the floor, he definitely tries to screen bodies. Mike Fratello told me, ‘Slava’s going to be good for you tonight.’ Slava had a good run.”
As for Calderon, the Pistons got their first real feel for his impact during an 11-2 third-quarter run that saw the Pistons take a nine-point lead.
In a stretch that took less than two minutes, Calderon (1) found Kyle Singler for an open 15-footer to put the Pistons ahead by a point; (2) hit Greg Monroe with a simple yet highly effective pass that carried Monroe to the rim for a layup; (3) grabbed a defensive rebound and hit Monroe in stride in transition, causing a foul that sent him to the line; and (4) took the ball from Deron Williams and fed Brandon Knight for a transition layup.
“We’re talking about a guy who’s been in the league eight years,” Frank said. “It’s just going to be a matter of feel – his, and also the other four guys playing with him – and understanding what his strengths are. We’re going to go through a ripple effect. It’s short-term pain for long-term gain.”
Calderon finished with eight points and nine assists. The Pistons, despite scoring just 90 points – five below their season average – racked up 28 assists, eight above their average.
“He’s all about the pass first and then the shot,” Maxiell said. “Playing with him is going to be great.”
And when the Pistons add their closers – either the young guys like Monroe and Drummond growing up or off-season additions they figure to make with the cap space they’ve created – maybe that will turn losses like Wednesday’s into wins often enough to nudge their building phase a few more miles down the track.