But last year’s Pistons don’t exist. And that starting five has been reduced by half these days. Operating at just about 50 percent power, the Pistons lost one they’d like to forget - 103-96 to the Charlotte Bobcats - but might be forced to remember about mid-April when playoff seeding is finalized and every win that got away comes more clearly into focus.
With Ben Wallace in Chicago, Chauncey Billups in street clothes and Rasheed Wallace in a funk, the Pistons are finding themselves as prone to the cycles of success that only the elite teams seem inoculated against.
The Pistons still see themselves as an elite team, but Wednesday’s loss dropped them to 20-13 and continued a season-long trend of struggles against the NBA dregs - they’re now 1-2 against the Bobcats.
“I don’t know what’s causing it,” said Flip Murray, standing in for the fifth straight game for Billups at point guard, “but I know we’ve got to get together. We’ve got to get ready and come out and play every game. It’s starting to come down toward the end of the season and all these games like these count.”
“It kind of got to be Murphy’s Law,” a clearly disappointed and frustrated Flip Saunders said after the game. “What bad could happen, kept on happening bad.”
Consecutive triples from Tayshaun Prince and Wallace, who came off the bench for a second straight night, and a baseline jumper by Rip Hamilton allowed the Pistons to close the first quarter on an 8-0 run to lead 27-18, but they had a second-quarter meltdown worthy of Michigan’s unseasonably mild winter.
Charlotte outscored them 27-8 in the second, opening the quarter on an 12-0 run, the last eight from rookie Adam Morrison, and that stretch got Will Blalock a quick hook from Saunders. But nothing much changed after back-to-back baskets by Carlos Delfino stopped the bleeding temporarily. Charlotte ripped off eight more points to make it a 20-4 run for a seven-point lead that would become a 27-5 run and a 13-point edge which the Pistons managed to cut to 10 by halftime. Detroit’s eight points in the quarter, no surprise, were a season low.
“It looked like ‘Space Jam’ at times,” Saunders said. “We had layups hit the rim, we missed tips, we had three or four tips. The disappointing thing is we kept somewhat in the game with all those things but we couldn’t get up over the hump. We didn’t have the energy.”
The Pistons fell to 2-3 without Billups, but Charlotte was without Brevin Knight and Gerald Wallace. After admonishing his team before Monday’s practice about developing a greater sense of urgency - spurred in part by Wallace calling in late for practice and being told not to bother, then getting cycled out of the starting lineup for Tuesday night’s win at Philadelphia - Saunders stopped short of saying the Charlotte loss traced to lack of focus.
But Prince, who was even more pointed than Saunders in his criticism on Monday, reiterated his stance Wednesday.
“We’ve just got to do a better job of being focused before the game starts,” he said. “Like I said before, the focus has got to be better. Our focus was great before the Philly game. We started off the game good, though, but the second quarter, our energy level went down a little bit. We drove the ball to the basket, didn’t get any calls and got frustrated a little bit and it went from there.”
Saunders said bringing Wallace off the bench Wednesday was not a continuation of his punishment but more an acknowledgment of the success of the combinations used in the Philadelphia win - he liked how Will Blalock played when paired with Wallace - and a nod to the wisdom of limiting Wallace’s minutes as he continues to struggle with ankle and knee injuries.
Wallace wound up playing heavier minutes Wednesday as Nazr Mohammed played just 11:28, partly because of foul trouble. Hamilton and Prince combined for 42 points, 23 by Hamilton, but neither ever found a rhythm and Hamilton wound up getting ejected with a minute left by Ron Olesiak, who hit him with two technical fouls.
Murray scored 18 points but it took him 19 shots to get there. Wallace finished with 13 points and six boards but didn’t have nearly the overall impact the Pistons expect him to have. Six Bobcats scored in double figures, led by Raymond Felton with 18, Matt Carroll with 17 and Morrison with 16 off the bench, where the Bobcats held a 42-26 advantage.