A Stinging Loss

Lineup switch yields Singler’s career high, but Pistons fall to Atlanta


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

WHITE HOT – Maurice Cheeks changed the starting lineup – Kyle Singler in, Josh Smith out – and while the move produced a career-high 22 points for Singler, Smith went scoreless. He missed all seven of his shots and the Pistons wound up taking a stinging 96-89 loss to Atlanta, getting swept by the Hawks in a home-and-home set over the past three days. The Pistons played from behind most of the night, but took an 87-86 lead with 3:30 to play. A key play came with about two minutes left when Brandon Jennings, with the Pistons trailing by three, stole the ball from Jeff Teague and was on his way for a layup to cut the lead to one. But Teague blocked the shot from behind, then fed Al Horford a lob for a dunk seconds later for a four-point turnaround and a five-point Atlanta lead. Teague led Atlanta with 18 points and nine assists.

BLUE COLLAR – Josh Harrellson has played sparingly this season, but with a new starting lineup Harrellson became the No. 4 big man and was used in each half. He played 11 minutes and made the most of them, scoring seven points on 3 of 3 shooting and grabbing five rebounds. Gigi Datome didn’t play for the Pistons, Charlie Villanueva was in street clothes with a sore back and Jonas Jerebko made a three-minute cameo in the second half.

RED FLAG – Twelve games into the season, the Pistons are struggling to find their identity and lineup combinations that click. They entered Friday’s game last in the league in defensive field-goal percentage, 3-point shooting and free-throw shooting. They’ve still managed to give themselves a chance to win every one of those 12 games except last week’s loss at Golden State, but they’ll need to come up with some solutions in a hurry to avoid a tailspin. They improved their field-goal percentage defense Friday, holding Atlanta to 43.5 percent, but struggled again at both the free-throw (64 percent) and 3-point lines (23 percent).

For the few players who lingered in the locker room after the toughest loss to figure this season, the frustration and bewilderment was palpable after the Pistons fell 96-89 to Atlanta, a game that will be remembered as the one Josh Smith didn’t start.

“You can see by everybody’s face, nobody likes to lose,” Andre Drummond said. “It’s tough to swallow, but we’ve just got to get back to the drawing board. We can’t keep using the same excuse, that we’re a new team. We’re 12 games in now, so it comes down to us figuring things out and just coming together as one.”

They seemed like anything but a seamless unit from start to finish against Atlanta, and yet there they were, somehow ahead by a point with 3:30 to play despite suffering another shaky shooting night – last in the league in 3-point percentage, the Pistons dipped another notch by making 3 of 13 from the arc – and Maurice Cheeks tinkering with lineup combinations in search of one that might light a fire.

But in the end, they simply made too many mistakes and let too many basketballs, and opportunities, slip through their fingers. Seven of their 15 turnovers came in the fourth quarter, Atlanta turning those seven into miscues into nine crucial points. Three of those turnovers came in a six-possession span after Rodney Stuckey’s two free throws gave them their brief lead.

One that didn’t count as a turnover, but might as well have, was the key play of the game. Down three with a little less than two minutes remaining, Brandon Jennings picked Jeff Teague’s pocket and headed the other way for a layup. He glanced back at Teague to gauge the possibility of a trailing block and that might have allowed Atlanta’s point guard just enough time to close the gap. Teague swatted the shot cleanly, picked up the ball and seconds later threaded a perfect lob to Al Horford for a dunk, a critical four-point swing that left the Hawks up five.

“Turnovers did hurt us. We had a few,” said Kyle Singler, who started for Smith and responded with a career-best 22 points. “You’ve just got to learn from them. The last minutes are very valuable. You’ve got to value the ball, value your possessions and at least get a shot.”

“That was a heck of a play by Teague,” Cheeks said. “We could have been down one at the time. We hung in there and gave ourselves a chance, but those turnovers late in the game, they killed us.”

The more pressing questions to Cheeks after the game dealt not with its finish, though, but its start. In particular, why he started Singler instead of Smith

"We’re a new team, we just have to come together, that’s really what it boils down to. We just have to figure it out."

- Andre Drummond on turnovers
Full game quotes
Cheeks explained that on the return flight from Atlanta after Wednesday’s loss, he decided to hold a Thursday morning practice. NBA teams typically take the day off after playing back-to-back games, as the Pistons did Tuesday and Wednesday. But it’s convention, not mandate, and Smith – who stayed in Atlanta after Wednesday’s game to spend time with family, anticipating the day off – didn’t make it back to Detroit in time for the 11 a.m. practice.

Will Cheeks reinstate Smith to the starting lineup when the Pistons play at Brooklyn on Sunday afternoon?

“Probably, but nothing is written in stone,” Cheeks said. “Josh is one of our top players. He’s not going to be on the bench. Things happen.”

While the move to the starting lineup worked for Singler, Smith clearly was thrown off of his game by coming off the bench. He went scoreless – the first time in his career he hasn’t scored a point when playing more than 15 minutes – and missed all seven of his shots. He did grab seven rebounds and block three shots in a little less than 20 minutes and Cheeks said his effort wasn’t an issue.

“I thought he tried,” he said. “His numbers didn’t say (that). But I thought he tried.”

The Pistons, who got double-doubles from Drummond (15 points, 16 rebounds, his seventh straight double-double) and Greg Monroe (11 and 11) led 11-4 early, but it quickly went off the rails for them, Atlanta going on a 23-7 run to take a nine-point lead before the first quarter was out. The Hawks led by 11 in the second quarter, then by nine in the third after the Pistons spurted to a 52-51 lead less than four minutes into the second half. They fell behind by eight early in the fourth quarter, yet rallied again.

Ultimately, too many mistakes with the ball and too much havoc wreaked in their paint by Teague, who finished with 18 points and nine assists, undid them.

The continued absence of Chauncey Billups (left knee tendinitis, five games missed) and Will Bynum (left hamstring, four games missed) hurt Cheeks, especially with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope struggling to knock down shots. After going 1 of 9 against Atlanta on Wednesday, the Georgia native was 1 of 11 early in the fourth quarter before he helped the Pistons rally from an 80-72 deficit by drilling three straight jump shots, including a 3-pointer.

As luck would have it, Cheeks had Stuckey lined up to come in for Caldwell-Pope at the scorer’s table as his steal and jump shot pulled the Pistons to within a point with 6:32 to play.

“I like to have Stuckey in the game because he’s probably going to be the guy that we’re going to put the ball in his hands to score the ball,” Cheeks said. “I gave him a rest just for that reason and put him back in the game.”

It was that kind of game for the Pistons, who have hit their most serious bump in the road. They’ve given themselves a chance to win every game but one – last week’s loss at Golden State, where they fell 19 down in the first quarter – but they take a 4-8 record to Brooklyn and know they can’t afford to cede much more ground, even in the forgiving Eastern Conference.

“For us, it’s all about the win,” said Singler, pressed to talk about his career night. “It doesn’t matter where our points are coming from, rebounds. We’ve got to figure out what works for us and what eventually will get us to winning ballgames.”