NEW ORLEANS – Stan Van Gundy saw a lot of fight from the Pistons. He wishes he maybe didn’t see quite so much of it at the free-throw line, where the Pistons fought themselves – and lost.
They set an NBA record for futility, hitting 3 of 17 free throws. That’s 17.6 percent and no team that had taken at least 10 free throws in a game had ever shot that poorly. Combine it with their 39 percent shooting overall and their icy 13 percent (3 of 23 if you’re scoring at home) from the 3-point line and, well, it’s remarkable they didn’t set an NBA record for margin of defeat.
And yet …
The Pistons trailed by just six points, 73-67, when Andre Drummond was ejected late in the third quarter after a skirmish with Pelicans guard Tim Frazier. Frazier stripped Drummond of a rebound, then Drummond fouled Frazier as he tried to strip the ball back. Frazier backed into Drummond in response to being fouled, then Drummond put his hand to Frazier’s face and shoved him.
“It was tough, especially in a game where we didn’t make too many shots, losing the best rebounder, best offensive rebounder, in the league,” Reggie Jackson said. “So when we lost him, that was our energy. He played tremendous until he was thrown out.”
Drummond finished with 13 points and 17 rebounds in his 29 minutes. He had 10 of his team’s 17 offensive boards on a night offensive rebounding was their best offensive weapon. Two things kept the Pistons close despite their atrocious shooting – second-chance points (a 21-13 edge) and points off turnovers (18-6).
The former went away with Drummond’s banishment and the latter dissipated at about the same time. The Pistons didn’t commit a turnover for the game’s first 31 minutes, then committed seven.
The constant was their bad shooting. Drummond missed his first eight free throws, but it wasn’t just him. He finished 1 of 10 at the line and is now 5 of 28 over the past three games. The rest of the team, though, shot 2 of 7. That really meant Marcus Morris missing both of his shots and Tobias Harris going 2 of 5. Nobody else shot a single free throw.
“It’s hard to win games when you go 3 for 23 from three and 3 for 17 at the free-throw line,’ Van Gundy said. “Especially when you look at the first half. We’re down three and we’re 0 for 8 at the free-throw line. I don’t even know what to say. It’s just incredibly disheartening when you make a good offensive play and you get fouled and it amounts to zero – same as a turnover. It was a really, really rough night.”
The Pistons have had trouble shooting all season on the second leg of a back-to-back set and their challenge was compounded this time around by playing overtime in Auburn Hills on Tuesday and flying through the night. The starters were a combined 2 of 15 from the 3-point line. Only Morris, Harris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope made any – one apiece.
“That obviously makes it difficult because as you know, the analytics say you want free throws and threes,” Ish Smith said. “We didn’t shoot neither of those well tonight.”
On the other end, the Pistons helped New Orleans – playing without newly acquired DeMarcus Cousins, serving a one game suspension after accruing his 18th technical foul – get into a flow offensively by sending the Pelicans, Anthony Davis in particular, to the free-throw line early and often.
Davis shot eight of his 11 free throws in the first quarter as the Pelicans made all 17 of their first-half free throws and 22 of 23 for the game.
“When you see the ball go through the net, whether it be at the free-throw line or just makes, it makes shots easier late and it makes it more contagious,” Jackson said. “Once one player makes one or two, the next guy makes one or two, you start feeling the flow of the game and everybody starts feeling good. Same way if shots don’t fall.”
Van Gundy felt the Pistons made it too easy on Davis early by allowing him too much freedom of movement.
“We weren’t ready for him on the catch. He was catching and going quick and we were fouling him on the first dribble consistently,” he said. “We didn’t do a very good job in the first half of getting him into the help and the second defender. The guy on the ball was not controlling him at all. Second half, we came at him a little better and, to his credit, he made some passes and they hit threes. If you’d come at him early in the game, a little easier to make all those shots if you’re those other guys when you’re already up 12 to 15.”
The Pistons’ loss, coupled with Miami’s 27-point win over Philadelphia, lifted the Heat to within a game of the Pistons for the No. 8 playoff spot in the East. The Heat play 12 of their final 21 games at home, but one of their road games comes at The Palace, the last meeting of the two teams. The Pistons hold a 2-1 edge in the season series, so winning their March 28 matchup could be critical not only in the standings but also for tiebreaker purposes.
All of that will be out of reach if the Pistons repeat Wednesday’s shooting numbers anytime soon.
“We played hard,” Smith said. “Like Coach says all the time, playing hard is a must in this league. You don’t get no rewards for playing hard. We missed some shots we usually make and that’s how the ball bounced and the game goes.”