That's a Crusher

Portland’s key offensive boards lead to disheartening Pistons OT loss


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

WHITE HOT – The Pistons played a nearly flawless game for three quarters, taking a 13-point lead over the 20-4 Portland Trail Blazers on Rodney Stuckey’s basket to open the fourth quarter. But Portland forced overtime by outscoring the Pistons 26-15 in the fourth quarter and won it on a tough 14-footer by Damian Lillard at the buzzer 111-109. Josh Smith was spectacular for the Pistons, scoring 31 points. LaMarcus Aldridge had 27 points and 12 rebounds for Portland, which got huge points out of five offensive rebounds – three in the final seconds of regulation, two more in overtime.

BLUE COLLAR – The plan is for Chauncey Billups to sit out one end of back to backs, which means he likely won’t suit up Monday night at Indiana. The Pistons will miss him. Mr. Big Shot provides a stabilizing influence on Detroit’s offense. He provided 18 rock-steady minutes for the Pistons, scoring eight points to go with four assists and four rebounds. Billups was on the court when the Pistons had their outstanding spurt to start the second quarter, turning a seven-point deficit into a seven-point lead.

RED FLAG – As in Friday’s game with Brooklyn, the Pistons functioned beautifully for three quarters on offense but bogged down in the fourth. They survived Brooklyn with a 21-point lead, but couldn’t hold on against one of the NBA’s elite teams. After shooting 50 percent and committing only seven turnovers in the first three quarters, the Pistons shot 33 percent in the fourth and committed seven turnovers. That follows a season-long pattern. The Pistons came into the game shooting 48 percent in first quarters with the figure declining in each quarter to under 40 percent in the fourth.

When you struggle to win close games, as young teams are wont to do, it’s almost never a single glaring weakness that undermines winning. For the Pistons, the thing that tripped them up Sunday wasn’t what they could have possibly expected: an inability to grab a key defensive rebound.

Three times in the final seconds of regulation, Portland gained critical points by corralling offensive rebounds, allowing the Trail Blazers to complete a fourth-quarter comeback and force overtime. Twice more in overtime, Portland grabbed rebounds that had they gone the other way would have made a Pistons win not only possible, but likely.

The Pistons led from the middle of the second quarter on and by 13 points early in the fourth quarter. They were doing everything within reason to control the league’s best offensive team – herding Damian Lillard away from the paint in pick-and-roll action, guarding the 3-point line with certainty a night after the Blazers sunk 21 of 37 and doing as well as anyone has in limiting the damage inflicted by LaMarcus Aldrige, who has thrust himself into MVP discussion.

And against the NBA’s No. 4 offensive rebounding team, the Pistons limited Portland to just seven through three quarters. Then the fourth quarter happened. The offense, fueled by Josh Smith’s Pistons-best 31 points, scored just 15 after amassing 84 through three quarters. They turned it over just seven times through three quarters, but bobbled it seven times in the fourth alone. They made half their shots through three quarters, a third in the fourth.

"If this doesn’t sting, I don’t know what does."

- Josh Smith on the tough loss
Full game quotes
“If this doesn’t sting, I don’t know what does,” Smith said. “The game was pretty much won, but we found a way to not win.”

“We had this game won,” Billups said. “A Christmas present. We gave it to ’em.”

Lillard won the game with a tip-your-hat type of shot at the overtime buzzer, a lean-back 14-footer after Stuckey blunted his path to the basket. It was also Lillard who started the barrage of Portland offensive boards with a tip-in to cut Detroit’s lead to 97-96 with 1:42 left in regulation. After the Pistons scored to make it 99-96, Lillard, a 92 percent foul shooter, missed the back end to do the Pistons a favor. Except the ball deflected out of bounds off the Pistons, and when Kyle Singler got whistled for fouling Wes Matthews as he went to grab another offensive rebound, Portland wound up with two more free throws to tie the game with 31 seconds to play.

Robin Lopez tipped in Portland’s first two points of overtime, then a Matthews offensive board led to two more Lillard free throws to put the Blazers back on top by two with 24 seconds left. Stuckey tied the game with 13 seconds to go, leading to Lillard’s highlight-reel winner.

“Offensive rebounds,” said Cheeks, normally unflappable but visibly dispirited by this loss. “Obviously, that was the difference. Offensive rebounding. That was the difference,” he repeated. “We did a very good job guarding pick and roll, we pretty much took them out of their 3-point shooting, we knew Aldridge could be a handful down low; he got 27 on 25 shots. So we did the job. We just didn’t rebound the ball.”

Smith endured a similar growing process in Atlanta before a young Hawks team matured into a perennial playoff participant. He preached patience while admitting his own lack of it.

“Some people are a little (more) impatient than others during this process,” he said. “I’m on the impatient side. Just having patience and just making sure these guys are learning from the mistakes that we’re making. They’re correctable. We just have to concentrate a little harder.

“When I was in Atlanta and we were young, we were in a lot of ballgames, but late down the stretch we couldn’t figure it out. A year later, we turned the corner. But those losses that we experienced in that time, they stung a little bit and they were also learning experiences. We sat down as a team and watched film. We didn’t want to watch them, but we saw reasons we lost those games and it didn’t do anything but make us better. We’ll sit down as a team and see what we’re doing wrong in late games, because this was definitely a winnable game.”

Grab any of those five defensive rebounds and it was a game the Pistons might have used as a springboard to the rest of their season. Grab one of those rebounds and the story would have been Smith’s 31 on 13 of 17 shooting, or Andre Drummond’s 12-rebound second half or the resourcefulness Cheeks displayed in using his bench. Instead, the Pistons were left to soak in the frustration of another galling loss.

“You’ve got to learn,” Billups said. “When (Portland was) down, that sense of urgency kicked in. They got aggressive. They went to the glass. We’ve got to learn from that and we’ve got to try to do that.”

They’ll go from the frying pan to the fire in applying whatever learning sticks from the overtime loss. After battling the NBA’s No. 1 offensive team, the Pistons turn around and get the league’s best defensive team, Indiana, on its home court, where the Pacers are 11-0 and have been resting since Friday night. These lessons the Pistons are absorbing, to be sure, are coming from the school of hard knocks.