Dre’s Return Spoiled

Drummond scores 17, but another bad third quarter costs Pistons

TEAM COLORS

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

White Hot – Andre Drummond’s return was a personal success but a team failure as Drummond’s 17 points in 18 minutes wasn’t enough to prevent a 99-82 loss to the Toronto Raptors, who used a strong third quarter to pull away after a closely contested first half. Drummond, who had missed 22 straight games, made his first career start, playing in six-minute segments in the first, second and third quarters. Drummond also had four rebounds, two steals and two blocked shots. Greg Monroe recorded his 33rd double-double with 11 points, 13 rebounds and five assists and Jonas Jerebko came off the bench to score 20.

BLUE COLLAR – Ex-Piston Amir Johnson was a perfect 7 of 7 from the field during a tightly contested first half to allow the Raptors to fight back from an early 10-point deficit, scoring 16 points and grabbing six boards before halftime. His teammates heated up in the third quarter, but Johnson finished with a sparkling line: 20 points on 9 of 11 shooting plus eight rebounds and two assists.

RED FLAG – For the second straight game, the Pistons got gashed defensively in the third quarter to blow open a tight game. On Tuesday against Minnesota, the Pistons trailed by six points when the third quarter began and by 28 when it ended, giving up 38 points to the Timberwolves. On Friday against Toronto, the Pistons trailed by one point at halftime but were outscored 28-7 over the first nine minutes to trail by 22. Toronto shot 60 percent in the third quarter, hitting 15 of 25 overall and 3 of 5 from the 3-point arc after shooting 0 of 5 from distance in the first half, in outscoring the Pistons 36-15.

It was simultaneously painful yet fitting that Andre Drummond returned to the Pistons – and this time as a starter – one day after they’d been officially eliminated from playoff contention. Drummond’s return was both a reminder of what might have been had he not missed the past 22 games and a blueprint for what they hope to be.

With Drummond presenting an inviting above-the-rim target, the Pistons got off to a fast start and led Toronto by 10 points five minutes into the game. But another third-quarter meltdown served to underscore what Lawrence Frank warned before the game: “The last thing I want to do is, OK, Andre’s back, our problems are solved. That is the furthest thing from the truth there is.”

Toronto outscored the Pistons 36-15 in the third quarter, breaking open a one-point halftime game, and rolled to a 99-82 win that looked and felt much like Minnesota’s 105-82 win three nights earlier.

“Very similar to the Minnesota game,” Frank said. “Competitive game. Third quarter, 25-8 run. It just doesn’t add up. When you’re competitive for a half and then it just snowballs on us and we don’t have the resolve right now to put more into it. This is embarrassing. You’re got to sustain your focus, effort, discipline for 48 minutes. We’re not doing it.”

Drummond’s insertion into the starting lineup meant Greg Monroe moved to power forward as a starter for the first time in his career. Another first: the point guard-center pick-and-roll combination of Drummond and Jose Calderon had never played a meaningful minute together, Drummond playing cameo minutes in Calderon’s first two games – but both of them after incurring the stress fracture to his fifth lumbar vertabra that cost him the past 22 games.

So a little dislocation was to be expected from the Pistons at both ends as Monroe must not only deal with guarding a wider variety of players at power forward but also adapt to an entirely new set of tenets on defensive rotations, and as Calderon and Drummond explore the nuances that make up the broad set of pick-and-roll possibilities.

When they were good in the first half, Drummond took a few nice feeds from Calderon as he was charging the rim, scoring on one deft lob pass for a dunk. Monroe hit Drummond with a few passes from the mid-post for dunks, as well.

“It definitely felt great being back out there tonight,” Drummond said. “I felt like I didn’t miss a beat.”

Drummond played three different stints, all of around six minutes, and finished with 17 points, four rebounds, two blocks and two steals, hitting 8 of 10 shots, in a little less than 19 minutes. He would have come back for another similar stretch of the fourth quarter, but when Toronto stretched its lead to 22 points after three quarters, Frank played out the string with Slava Kravtsov at center.

Of the getting-to-know-you stages with Calderon, Drummond said, “We’re always in constant communication. He’s always talking to me on the floor, telling me different spots to be. He always finds me and Greg. It’s great to play with him.”

If the third quarter hadn’t been such a two-way catastrophe, Drummond’s return would have been enough to send the Pistons and their fans home feeling pretty happy. But it was 12 minutes ordered solely by Murphy’s Law – whatever could go wrong, did.

The Pistons were sluggish on offense and turned the ball over four times, which got Toronto off and running with easy transition points. Rudy Gay, after shooting 0 of 3 in the first half, bagged 7 of 11 in the third quarter, including 3 of 4 from the 3-point arc, to score 19 of his 21. DeMar DeRozan hit 5 of 8, scoring 11 of his 21. The Pistons, meanwhile, shot 6 of 17 with the four turnovers leading to nine Raptors points.

“I think our offense really hurt our defense,” said Kyle Singler, who finished with 13, getting himself open via some baseline cuts with the attention Drummond commanded. “I don’t think our schemes on defense hurt us that bad. When we turned the ball over, it snowballed and they got easy transition points and they were able to hit some threes, too, in transition.”

The Pistons have a compressed window in which to accelerate the Drummond-Calderon offensive chemistry and the Drummond-Monroe defensive acclimation with only nine remaining games. More than anything, perhaps, they need to recapture the spirit that defined their best days when Drummond led a dynamic second unit.

“We haven’t quit,” Frank said. “That would be totally unfair and not right. If you quit, then right from the beginning of the game. We’re putting forth an effort. We had some good moments in the first half. … Right now, everyone associated with the Pistons can’t be very proud of what we’re doing. That’s the bottom line. I know this: There are a lot of people that want to get this right and we will get it right.”

Adding injury to insult, the Pistons lost Brandon Knight – not once, but twice. He left a few minutes into the game after getting popped in the nose, returning minutes later wearing the mask fitted for him when he broke his nose last season. Early in the fourth quarter, Knight got caught up in a pile near the basket and reaggravated the sprained ankle that cost him four games earlier this month. The team later announced his status as day to day. The Pistons start a stretch of four straight road games at Chicago on Sunday, perhaps buoyed by the knowledge that they’ve lately been more competitive on the road than at home.

“If we’re not humiliated,” Frank said. “It’s just the fact that we’re at home and we’re getting whacked. … I know it’s tiring saying the same stuff and you guys may be tired of listening to it. The bottom line is we’ve got to get tired of getting embarrassed. At the end of the day, we’re all professionals. You have to be motivated by competition. That’s the deal. And to come in our building again and be embarrassed like we were … this hurts. It hurts.”

“That’s spot on,” Singler said. “The main glaring thing, we’ve got to be tired of losing and, plus, we’re getting blown out, too. So we’ve got to show pride.”