Big early lead dries up as Pistons fuel Utah rally with 14 second-half turnovers

Blake Griffin scored 34 points, 13 of them in the fourth quarter, but turnovers were the Pistons undoing after they led Utah by 18 early
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

DETROIT – There are always a handful of games as March turns to April that haunt teams on the wrong side of the thin line between playoff qualifiers and franchises headed for the lottery.

If that’s where the Pistons find themselves in a few months, Saturday’s 110-105 loss to Utah is certain to be among them.

After dominating the Jazz to lead 31-13 after a quarter and after protecting the basketball commendably in the first half, the Pistons spit it up 14 times in the second half. Four of them came in a two-minute span midway through the fourth quarter to spark a 10-0 Utah run that saw the Pistons’ deficit explode from one to 11.

“That was our undoing,” Dwane Casey said after the bitter loss.

If you want to award a silver medal after turnovers claim the gold, it goes to the Pistons bench. Without its two catalysts from early-season success – point guard Ish Smith and center Zaza Pachulia, both injured – the bench was on the court when Utah got back in the game with a 14-0 run early in the second quarter. All five Pistons bench players finished in the red in plus/minus numbers, ranging from 7 to 14 despite minutes scaled back due to their collective ineffectiveness.

The Jazz won at Cleveland on Friday but were 0-4 for the season in back to backs. Had the Pistons been able to maintain or expand the 18-point lead in the second quarter and held a double-digits lead at halftime, Utah probably wasn’t going to mount a challenge.

“Great teams go from an 18-point lead to a 28-point lead, 25, and they keep it there,” Blake Griffin said. “We just haven’t gotten to that level yet where we put our foot on people’s throats and don’t let up. That’s the next step for us.”

The Pistons wasted one of Griffin’s better games in a season-filled with All-Star-worthy outings. He hit 13 of 21 shots, scored 34 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and chalked up five assists in 39 minutes, all the more grueling because the Pistons funneled almost all of their offensive possessions through him.

Reggie Bullock hit all four of his 3-point shots in that dazzling first quarter in which Utah was held to four baskets on 19 percent shooting, but then scored only five the rest of the way. Andre Drummond hit 7 of 10 shots in one of his most efficient games, as well, finishing with 15 points and 18 boards. But the bench contributed only 13 points on 5 of 20 shooting.

“The second unit usually are the ones that come in and really move the ball and move,” Casey said. “We didn’t have that in the second quarter, then it continued in the second half.”

Rookie Bruce Brown matched up against a familiar face, Donovan Mitchell, and won the battle in the first half with 10 points and four assists – already a career high on his way to seven – while holding Mitchell to two points on four shots. Jazz coach Quin Snyder even pulled Mitchell early in the third quarter after two turnovers and a clanked 3-pointer, but when he came back two minutes later he was a different player.

Mitchell scored 24 points in the game’s final 18 minutes, including 12 on 5 of 8 shooting to go with three assists and two steals in the fourth quarter.

“He was just being more aggressive in the second half, making tough shots, but that battle goes back to high school,” said Brown, who overlapped Mitchell in the Atlantic Coast Conference for one season. “There was a little back and forth there.”

“I thought Bruce did a heck of a job on him,” Casey said. “He started being more forceful. He made some tough shots. I thought Bruce was on him pretty well, but he made some tough shots, which is what he does.”

Mitchell said something he heard from the crowd lit a fuse for him.

“I stopped listening to the guy in the corner,” he said. “He said something and it really just snapped for me. I don’t know what it was and it shouldn’t take somebody to say something for me to be the player I am. But that’s what happened.”

Griffin was his equal in the fourth quarter, when he scored 13 of his 34 points and hit 5 of 6 shots. But the turnovers more than tipped the scales to Utah.

“Utah’s one of those teams – they’re so well coached. They just have veteran guys who’ve been in playoff situations,” Griffin said. “They just grind it. Early on, we did a good job of getting in their air space, making it tough for them to get in the pain and get easy shots. And they just kept at it. Turnovers at the end killed us.”

It was a game the Pistons try to quickly put behind them. But it’s shadow might loom into the springtime, when every win for teams straddling that thin line becomes precious.