Instant Replay

Pistons’ playoff hopes take a hit as Charlotte wins back-to-back set


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

WHITE HOT – Charlotte got off to a fast start for the second straight night against the Pistons and swept their critical two-game set coming out of the All-Star break with a 116-98 win that leaves the Pistons 2½ games behind the Bobcats for the Eastern Conference’s final playoff berth. Again, it was Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker who led Charlotte. Jefferson racked up 29 points and eight rebounds and Walker 26 points and a career-high 16 assists. Charlotte swept the season series with the Pistons 3-0. Brandon Jennings led the Pistons with 20 points and six assists before being ejected late in the game for being assessed two technical fouls.

BLUE COLLAR – Josh McRoberts is an NBA journeyman who has found his niche playing next to Al Jefferson, where his versatility and athleticism provides a nice complement to Jefferson’s brute strength and scoring touch. The Bobcats don’t run anything for McRoberts, who at 26 in playing for his fifth team, but he hurt the Pistons from the 3-point arc for the second straight night. Two big 3-pointers in the fourth quarter came after the Pistons had cut Charlotte’s lead to nine points. He finished with 15 points, making 3 of 4 triples, to go with five points and five assists.

RED FLAG – The Pistons fell down by double digits in the first quarter and dug themselves a big hole for the second straight night mostly because they shot so poorly – and it was the players they rely on for scoring who did most of their misfiring. Brandon Jennings was 3 of 7, but Greg Monroe was 0 of 7, Josh Smith 0 of 5 and Rodney Stuckey 0 of 2. Those four finished a combined 25 of 61.

A 17-3 Charlotte run to open the third quarter ended all realistic possibilities for the Pistons to win the game. And if they don’t execute a quick and decisive turnaround with a meat grinder of a schedule awaiting them, that 17-3 run Wednesday night might have done the same to their playoff chances.

In the span of about 27 hours coming out of the All-Star break, the Pistons made their quest for the postseason that much harder, going from one-half game out of the final playoff spot – now Charlotte’s to lose – to 2½ out with 28 games to play. And 16 of those will come on the road.

“It’s two games,” John Loyer shrugged after the stinging loss. “It’s two we wanted to get and two we needed to get, but we didn’t get ’em. So you move on, you figure out your next plan and just go try to win the next game.”

“They had our number two games in a row,” said Will Bynum, who gave the Pistons brief hope of a comeback early in the fourth quarter and finished with 14 points and eight assists in 21 minutes. “We just have to string along some wins. I think we’re more frustrated than our confidence level being down.”

The Pistons host three games over the next five days – Atlanta, Dallas and Golden State – against teams currently in the playoff field and scrambling to stay there. Then they hit the road to play Western Conference heavyweights San Antonio and Houston. Whatever momentum they’re able to generate against that bunch, it will have to be earned, and it will have to come when their collective psyche figures to need some massaging after acknowledging the importance of these two games coming out of the break and then falling short.

“Tonight was definitely tough for us,” said Andre Drummond, who a night after grabbing 22 rebounds was limited to six. “There’s no explanation for how we played tonight. We came out flat and like they did the night before, they got themselves going and it was hard to turn back.” “It’s frustrating losing these games,” Monroe said. “I think people are frustrated, obviously, but I wouldn’t say it’s anything that’s affecting people’s playing right now.”

That frustration manifested itself in the Pistons getting hit with four technical fouls in the second half – one apiece for Drummond and Bynum and two and the boot for Brandon Jennings, who led six Pistons in double figures with 20 points.

The Charlotte game unfolded similarly to Tuesday’s 108-96 loss at The Palace, when the Bobcats made their first seven shots and took a quick double-digits lead. This time, they made 7 of 9 shots and again led by double digits in the first quarter. The Pistons shot 23 percent in the first quarter. Yet they somehow managed to pull within six at halftime – they committed just four turnovers and made their free throws – only to have the third quarter open disastrously, when the Bobcats again hit 7 of 9 shots. Those slow starts and two- and three-minute lulls continue to undermine their season.

“I want our guys to show passion to win the game, compete on every possession and as long as we do that we’ll be fine,” Loyer said. “We just don’t do it for 48 minutes.”

More distasteful similarities: The Pistons couldn’t contain Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker on Tuesday or Wednesday and their nascent comebacks were turned back by Josh McRoberts’ 3-pointers both nights. They crept back within eight points from 19 down Tuesday when McRoberts hit a big three and they three times pulled within nine after trailing by 20 on Wednesday but twice McRoberts answered with triples.

The Bobcats shot over 50 percent both nights, which tells a more troubling tale of the defensive shortcomings that have haunted the Pistons all season. Walker’s penetration, Jefferson’s efficient scoring inside and out – he hit 15 of 28 shots, and after doing most of his damage inside Tuesday, he stepped out to knock down a half-dozen jump shots Wednesday – and wise shot selection by the surrounding cast kept the Pistons a half-step out of the play on their defensive end.

The backdrop of the two-game set was the looming trade deadline, which hits at 3 p.m. Thursday. The Pistons, coincidentally, must send their 2014 first-round pick to Charlotte unless their draft position is among the top eight picks. There will be speculation that because the Pistons now have significant challenges ahead of them to make the playoffs that they would consider being sellers at the trade deadline, but there is no credible evidence to support such guesswork.

“I’m going about things normally,” said Monroe, whose status as a pending restricted free agent has thrust his name into the heart of speculation. “I didn’t even know tomorrow was the day, honestly. As far as we know, there hasn’t been any talk about anything. We’re getting ready to finish the season. Everybody on the team is getting ready to finish the season.”

Making sure it finishes in the postseason became an even more formidable challenge over the last two nights.