DETROIT – Here’s the way things are going for the Pistons. Reggie Bullock, as fine a 3-point shooter as the NBA has seen for three months, missed a wide-open triple to win the game. Seconds later, Fred VanVleet – shooting 1 of 9 for the game – drained a 20-footer along the baseline to drive another stake in Pistons hearts.
It was an exhilarating show for the 18,000 fans at Little Caesars Arena and a national TV audience, but ultimately the 121-119 loss was just another bitter pill for the Pistons to swallow as their playoff chances dwindle a little more with each loss. They remain five games behind Miami for the final playoff spot but now with only 17 games left.
The last 20 seconds of regulation featured a marvelous back and forth between two stars, Blake Griffin for the Pistons and DeMar DeRozan for the Raptors. When the two defenses decided somebody else was going to beat them in the waning seconds of overtime, Griffin found an open Bullock and DeRozan found an open VanVleet to beat double teams.
That’s a shooting contest the Pistons would bet their season on every time.
“I told him right after the game when we first came in here, ‘Keep you head up,’ ” Griffin said. “That’s a shot I would take a hundred times out of a hundred. If we play 82 games and that’s the shot at the end of the game, we’re going to win more games than we lose. He’s been huge for us. He’s hit huge shots. I said to the guys in the locker room, ‘That play wasn’t the deciding factor. It was that third quarter.’ ”
Oof. That third quarter. The Pistons trailed by four points after the first quarter and then began the second with a unit Van Gundy probably hasn’t even lined up in practice together. With Stanley Johnson missing the game with back spasms and Luke Kennard starting at small forward, Van Gundy’s unit to start the second quarter included Kennard, James Ennis, Eric Moreland, Anthony Tolliver and Dwight Buycks.
They were going against a Toronto bench that’s been the NBA’s best by point differential for most of the season. So, of course, the Pistons opened the quarter with a 25-4 burst to take a 17-point lead. It was still a 13-point margin at halftime, but Toronto – after scoring four points in the first eight minutes of the second quarter – scored 30 in the first eight minutes of the third and led by seven.
“That was the ballgame, right there,” Van Gundy said. “We still had chances. We did a good job fighting back. But that’s where they got back in it. We talked about it at halftime. They’ve come out every game in the third quarter against us and taken it to us. Everybody nodded their head. And we weren’t ready.”
“They just came out, hit some shots, started building their momentum and got in the game,” Bullock said. “Their best player started hitting shots. We just weren’t locked in as we should have been to start the third quarter.”
DeRozan, who scored 31 of his 42 points after halftime, scored 13 points in the third quarter and Kyle Lowry added 10 points and five assists. The Raptors hit 6 of 9 from the 3-point arc in the quarter, Lowry twice hitting threes while drawing a foul. They shot 61 percent and didn’t commit a turnover.
“They moved the ball well. I didn’t think we were terrible-terrible,” Griffin said. “We just gave up big plays. Offense rebound out for three, a couple of and-one threes. Big plays like that. It wasn’t necessarily that we were awful in our coverages and our second efforts. I think it was just that they got in transition, got easy ones and we just couldn’t stop the bleeding.”
Griffin was at the heart of the Pistons coming back to get to overtime against a team that won its sixth straight game and became the first NBA team to clinch a playoff berth. He finished with 31 points on 12 of 21 shooting.
DeRozan’s twisting 20-foot jump shot with James Ennis draped over him with 17.5 seconds left gave the Raptors a 111-109 lead, but Griffin answered with a tough step-back jumper to tie and gave the Pistons the lead by making the free throw when Pascal Siakam fouled him on the shot with 10 seconds to play. DeRozan came back with an end-to-end dunk, also converting the and-one, with 4.5 seconds left. The Pistons got Griffin the ball in the right post and he converted a banked hook shot with 0.9 showing to complete a sequence that left the crowd howling.
Then nobody scored for nearly three full minutes of overtime, the Raptors breaking through on Siakam’s layup set up by DeRozan. Ish Smith’s jump shot tied the game, but DeRozan’s three-point play with 1:37 left gave the Raptors the lead. Griffin, again, tied the game on a triple with 37 seconds left. After DeRozan missed a 12-foot turnaround challenged by Griffin, the Pistons took their best shot at the win.
This time, Toronto ganged up on Griffin to force the ball out of his hands. But the Raptors left Detroit’s best shooter open to do it. It’s a vision Bullock won’t soon be able to erase.
“I’ll continue to shoot that shot every time,” Bullock said. “I’ve hit that shot multiple times. It was a good look for me. Wish I can get it back, but obviously I can’t.”
The Pistons, likewise, insisted DeRozan wouldn’t get the last shot off on them.
“We were supposed to get it out of his hands on the couple of possessions before that, too,” Van Gundy said. “Our guys fought hard, but we had some possessions where we didn’t do what we were supposed to do.”
This time, they did. And got beat by a guy who’d missed eight of his nine previous shots.
“Had to load up to (DeRozan). No choice,” Eric Moreland said. “He was that hot. You have to collapse. You have to come in. Fred made a good shot. Nothing we could do about that.”
Nothing they could do about it, no way they’ll be able to forget about it.