Another slow start takes the shine off Pistons comeback and late loss at Portland

PORTLAND – The Pistons lead the league in number of starting lineups this season and chances are you’ll see another configuration next time they tip off.

Two games out of the All-Star break and, well, let Dwane Casey describe it: “That’s two games in a row our start has been atrocious. We’re too calm. I want to see somebody get upset and mad and break a bottle or something.”

The Pistons fell way behind early against the best team in the NBA, Milwaukee, in their last game and there was no coming back against a team that powerful. The fact they erased all of a 19-point first-quarter deficit and, in fact, led by 10 points in the second half at Portland doesn’t diminish Casey’s disappointment in the way the Pistons stumbled out of the gate in what became a 107-104 loss to a Trail Blazers team playing without Damian Lillard.

“I’ve got to do a better job of getting the right group in, the right combinations,” Casey said. “The second unit came back and got us into the game.”

The splits between the starters and bench were staggering. The bench scored 70 points – to 10 for Portland’s reserves – and grabbed 32 of the 44 rebounds. Christian Wood finished with 26 points and nine boards, Brandon Knight with 15 points and Langston Galloway 13 points. John Henson had eight points, seven rebounds and two blocked shots and Bruce Brown led the Pistons with 10 rebounds.

Derrick Rose was the only starter in double figures with 15 points – Tony Snell, Sekou Doumbouya, Thon Maker and Svi Mykhailiuk combined for 19 points – but even he struggled, shooting 6 of 16 and committing five turnovers, including two in a critical seven-possession scoreless stretch that saw the Pistons go from six points ahead with less than six minutes to play to four points down with two minutes left.

“We might have gotten sped up, bad decisions,” Casey said. “Derrick coming in, probably a little tight or whatever it was, but we had some bad turnovers down the stretch. They turned up their defense. You’ve got to play with force. Some untimely turnovers in that situation.”

Rose also had a difficult driving layup blocked by Hassan Whiteside with 40 seconds left and the Pistons down two points.

“Those are normally shots I hit or at least get a shot at actually going toward the rim, but it just didn’t work tonight,” Rose said. “You’ve got to make him do his job. One of my best jobs is going to the rim and tonight he was able to get his hand on a lot of balls.”

Portland got 73 of its 107 points from C.J. McCollum (41 points, nine rebounds, 12 assists) and Carmelo Anthony (a season-high 32). All five Pistons starters finished double digits in the red in plus/minus and four of their five bench players were double digits in the black, including Henson at plus-21 and Wood plus-17.

“We got off to a slow start and it happened the game before, too,” Wood said. “I feel like the second unit came in, brought energy and brought us back and kept us in the game. We’ve just got to have better starts.”

The Pistons went into the season expecting their bench to be a strength of the team, but that was a lifetime ago and the bench they have today isn’t the one they expected it to be. Their starting lineup is even more unrecognizable with only Snell a holdover from the start of the season. Andre Drummond has been traded, Reggie Jackson and Markieff Morris bought out and Blake Griffin and Luke Kennard are out with long-term injuries.

But the development of Wood has been an undeniable highlight of the season, while second-year players Brown and Mykhailiuk have established themselves as important components of the rebuilding effort. Rookie Sekou Doumbouya has been thrust into a way more prominent role than the Pistons envisioned and enduring the ups and downs to be expected for the NBA’s youngest player.

Rose is the only player 30 or older still on the roster and the Pistons face one of the NBA’s five most difficult closing schedules. They’ve shown they’ll compete, but Casey isn’t going to let anyone get satisfied with moral victories and close calls.

“We’ve just got to take it game by game,” Wood said. “It’s tough walking out of games with your head up when you take a loss, but we’re young. Guys are figuring it out and starting to play well with each other. Injuries hurt us. But we’ll be ready next game.”