Second half opens with a thud as Hornets sting Pistons

Anthony Tolliver scored 17 points off the bench and hit 5 of 6 from the 3-point arc.
Chris Schwegler/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

DETROIT – The Charlotte team that opened the second half of the season was the one that prompted most to pencil the Hornets into the playoffs three months ago when they opened the season at Little Caesars Arena.

The Pistons won the Oct. 18 debut in their shiny new home and hoped to use Game 42 – the first game of the second 41-game segment – to launch a playoff push with 14 of their next 17 games at home after playing 23 of the first 41 on the road.

Instead, they got “crushed” – Stan Van Gundy’s word – in a 118-107 loss in which the Hornets hammered them with 3-point shots in the first half and Kemba Walker’s slithering drives around Dwight Howard screens in the second.

“We’ve been playing against a lot of teams that use the pick and roll,” said Tobias Harris, who over the last two games has been matched up against the likes of Chicago’s Laurie Markkanen and Nikola Mirotic and Charlotte’s Marvin Williams and Frank Kaminsky, all exemplifying the modern NBA with its fleet of range-shooting power forwards.

“You’ve got to pull in to the big (and) get out, but it’s on the fours – on me, on everybody that plays the four position, to run those guys, close out to them. It’s the toughest part of the game, but it’s something that we have to do a better job of and it starts with me, too.”

Markkanen and Mirotic had four triples apiece in Saturday’s loss to Chicago and Williams hit 5 of 6 in Monday’s defeat.

“A lot of it today was, close out,” Van Gundy said. “Like, close out – and close out hard. It’s going to take a lot more effort than what we’re putting in to it.”

Maybe it was Pistons defenders cheating a half-step to the 3-point line after a first half in which Charlotte hit 7 of 11 triples or maybe it was just Walker deciding to turn up the heat, but after a quiet first half – he had three points on 1 of 5 shooting against Avery Bradley – Walker’s penetration was the dominant theme of the second half. He finished with 20 points, hitting 8 of 13 second-half shots, plus nine assists.

“Kemba, in a way, just picked us apart,” Bradley said. “He made simple plays. Got the ball to Dwight in the middle of the key and they kind of picked us apart.”

Howard got the better of his matchup with Andre Drummond, too, going for 21 points, 17 rebounds and four blocked shots to Drummond’s three points, 10 boards and one block. Drummond also wasn’t the force he’s been in suffocating the pick and roll.

“It wasn’t just him. It was everybody,” Van Gundy said. “I’m not going to single anybody out. We played nine guys today; not one of them defended – not one.”

And that was the thread that ran through the game for Van Gundy and, beyond this game, the thread that’s run through the 3-6 record in games since the Pistons lost Reggie Jackson to injury on Dec. 26.

“So we’re three and six since Reggie’s gone down and we’ve defended in three games – the three we’ve won,” Van Gundy said. “The other six … look at the numbers. We haven’t guarded.”

He didn’t get any pushback in the locker room.

“It’s something we’ve been saying the last few games,” Bradley said. “We saw the writing on the wall. If we’re not going to defend, we’re not going to win games on a consistent basis. That has to be our identity. That has to be our mindset going into every game.”

Even with Monday’s 118 points allowed on 51 percent shooting from Charlotte, the Pistons remain the NBA’s No. 10 defensive team. The focus might be a little too inconsistent for Van Gundy’s – or anyone in his locker room – liking, but it’s not like the Pistons haven’t proven over time to be an above-average defensive team even as they’ve grappled with the disruptive influence of injuries.

But especially while Jackson is idled, Van Gundy knows the sense of urgency to defend more responsibly and passionately for 48 minutes is imperative.

“I told (the Pistons) exactly what I told you – if we continue to defend like this, then we’re going to lose,” he said. “It’s plain and simple. We’re going to lose. You’re going to defend a lot harder or you’re going to keep losing.”

FAST BREAKDOWN

Three quick observations from Monday afternoon’s 118-107 loss to the Charlotte Hornets at Little Caesars Arena

1-DIFFERENT OUTCOME – The second half of the Pistons season opened the way the first half did: Charlotte at Little Caesars Arena. Any other similarities were hard to discern. Last time it was Charlotte missing key pieces, starters Nic Batum and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. This time it was the Pistons with Reggie Jackson, Stanley Johnson and Jon Leuer all out. And the biggest difference was the result, a loss this time in which the Pistons led by six at halftime but gave up 34 points in the third quarter – and 68 in the second half – and didn’t have enough firepower to claw their way back. Remember last month in the throes of the seven-game losing streak when Stan Van Gundy talked about the need for his four best players – Andre Drummond, Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley and Reggie Jackson – to play well for the Pistons to put themselves in position to win? Well, with Jackson out for an extended period that rings even more true for the last three standing. And when none come particularly close to peak performance – the case in Monday’s loss – it gets that much more difficult. Drummond’s numbers (three points, 10 rebounds) paled next to Dwight Howard’s (21, 17). Bradley took 19 shots and you’d be hard pressed to find a bad one in the bunch but he wound up making just six and finished with 15 points. Harris hit consecutive triples with less than five minutes to go and Bradley added another as the Pistons quickly halved an 18-point deficit but when they had a chance to cut it to seven Bradley missed another short jump shot and Charlotte bumped its lead back to 13 just as quickly.

2-TOLLIVER TIME – Tobias Harris looked like he was going to bury the disappointment of Saturday’s seven-point outing at Chicago when he scored eight points in the first 3:09. But foul trouble limited him to 10 first-half minutes and he still had just those eight points at halftime. But the Pistons held up OK in his absence because Anthony Tolliver played his best game in a while, hitting 5 of 6 3-point shots and finishing with 17 points in 26 minutes. Andre Drummond also was disrupted by foul trouble, playing less than 15 first-half minutes. Both picked up a third foul on the same Charlotte possession, five seconds apart, late in the second quarter. After Drummond got hit for tripping Dwight Howard on a move to the basket, Harris got nailed for closing out too aggressively and nudging Marvin Williams, no doubt aware Williams had hit three first-quarter triples against him. Led by Tolliver, the Pistons had another good showing from the 3-point arc, finishing 15 of 29. But when you give up 118 points, you need more than a potent 3-point attack.

3-INJURY COUNT – Over the season’s first half, the Pistons lost 59 man-games to injury among the group that began the season comprising Stan Van Gundy’s top seven. Jon Leuer led the count with 33 games missed; he’s now at 34 and counting. Stanley Johnson missed nine games and made it 10 against Charlotte as he continues to deal with tightness in his hip flexor muscle. Reggie Jackson missed his ninth game Monday since spraining his ankle on Dec. 27. Andre Drummond missed two games with bruised ribs and Avery Bradley seven with a groin injury. The only players who played in all 41 games in the first half were Tobias Harris and Ish Smith. Van Gundy said Leuer was administered another dose of an anti-inflammatory drug for his ankle injury – a bone fragment is lodged in a ligament – and continues to resist the notion of surgery which, Van Gundy said, would likely end his season.

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