Heat push Pistons to the brink as loss drops them 4 games out of playoff position

Blake Griffin scored 31 points, the most since joining the Pistons in trade, as they suffered a costly loss at Miami
Isaac Baldizon (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

MIAMI – The Heat had no answers for Blake Griffin. But the law of nature did.

Because Griffin couldn’t defy human endurance limits, the Pistons lost a game they probably couldn’t afford to lose. Now four games out of the playoff race with 19 games to play, they’ll need an immediate and dramatic around to avoid falling into the draft lottery and hoping for a Hail Mary to save their pick from being surrendered to the Clippers as final payment on the deal.

But Griffin gave perhaps his most compelling evidence yet that it was a trade with every potential to move the franchise forward. Griffin scored 31 points – 29 through the first three quarters – in his best scoring night since the late-January trade delivered him to Detroit.

“Blake’s a superstar. Blake’s going to be Blake,” teammate James Ennis said. “We’ve got to play alongside of him and just help him as much as we can.”

But about the only substantial help Griffin got came from Andre Drummond, who finished with 22 points and 18 rebounds. Even a smidgen of proficient perimeter shooting would have been enough, given the powerful punch their 1-2 interior combo packed, to carry the Pistons past Miami this night.

Instead, Pistons other than Griffin and Drummond shot 18 of 52 while Griffin (10 of 21) and Drummond (9 of 16) combined to hit 19 of 37. They shot 7 of 24 from the 3-point arc.

Both seemed to hit the wall in the fourth quarter – not only the second night of a back to back that began with an overtime loss on Friday at Orlando, but the Pistons fifth game in seven days. Drummond, who played nearly 38 minutes, went all but the final 36 seconds of the quarter and scored eight points, but grabbed only one rebound. Griffin, who logged more than 36 minutes, came back midway through the quarter after going the distance in the third but took just two shots, making one with a minute left.

“We played Blake into exhaustion in the third quarter and we sat him down and we just struggled playing without him today,” Stan Van Gundy said. “He was dominant and every time he was out we just struggled. We were plus-7 with him on the floor, so then we go down in the fourth and when we got him back in the game we didn’t get him the ball.”

A night after Griffin finished one assist short of a triple-double, Van Gundy urged him to be a little less focused on looking for teammates and a little more intent on making decisive plays with scoring in mind.

“I just thought he was more aggressive,” Van Gundy said. “We really thought last night he passed up about a half-dozen shots. He’s so interested in getting everybody involved that what it leads to is the ball stops because he’s holding it – looking, looking, looking. Now the shot clock’s down and he’s trying to make a play. Today, especially early in the game (he was) catching it, shooting it; catching it, driving it; if a guy’s open, making a play. We need more of that.”

It was a glimpse, perhaps, of the potential of a Griffin-Drummond combination – and with a healthy Reggie Jackson and better 3-point shooting than the Pistons managed at Miami, Van Gundy won’t need to run them into the ground.

“We’re not going to have the best game every night, but (Drummond) is capable of doing that every night,” Griffin said. “When I first got here, I told him he could get 20 and 20 every night. It’s our job to help him get there and our job to put the best unit out there to win games. Tonight was a struggle.”

Drummond’s fatigue might have been at play at a critical point of the fourth quarter. The Pistons had just weathered back-to-back triples from Heat bench players Rodney McGruder and Kelly Olynyk and cut an 11-point deficit to seven when Dwyane Wade went to the line for two free throws.

Hassan Whiteside, fresh off the bench, checked into the game at the same time at 5:45. Wade missed both free throws and Drummond grabbed the board – but fumbled it, Whiteside corralling the ball and scoring while Drummond fouled him. Instead of having a shot to cut the lead to four or five, the Pistons found themselves down 10 and all but out of gas.

“That was demoralizing, really was,” Van Gundy said. “Especially because we had just talked a big part of the timeout which was 30 seconds before that we’ve got to do a better job blocking out. That’s inexcusable. I know Andre feels like crap about it now. He knows. That’s inexcusable.”

Van Gundy said it was probably more mental fatigue than physical at that point, but whatever it was it underscored the challenge the Pistons faced on a night Griffin and Drummond were dominant but their perimeter was punchless.

“Our six perimeter guys who played were 16 for 48 and 4 for 17 from three,” Van Gundy said. “That’s just not going to get it done.”


Three quick observations from Monday night’s 112-90 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena

1-ROAD BLUES – Something had to give. Turns out it was the Pistons as the resistible force met the movable object. The Cavs had lost four of their last five home games, but the Pistons came to town having lost 14 of their last 15 road games. Their loss to Cleveland, giving the Cavs the season series 3-1, completed a miserable 0-3 road trip that great damaged the Pistons’ dwindling playoff chances. The Pistons were hurt in an area of strength for them, rebounding. Cleveland didn’t do its typical damage from the 3-point line - they’d averaged nearly 15 made threes a game in the previous three meetings with the Pistons – but the Cavs still managed 54 first-half points because they held a 29-20 rebounding edge with eight offensive rebounds accounting for 14 second-chance points to just six for the Pistons. Then they heated up. After hitting just two of their first 10 3-pointers, the Cavs hit six of their next eight and they finished 12 of 33. The final rebounding numbers: Cleveland 53, Pistons 40. The Pistons led much of the first half but fell behind by five points at halftime and were blitzed early in the third quarter. Andre Drummond finished with 15 points and nine rebounds, snapping his carrer-best streak of 18 straight double-doubles. He came out of the game with five minutes left and the Pistons trailing by 22. It was the longest double-double streak for a Pistons player since Bob Lanier went 19 straight in the 1974-75 season.

2-BLAKE VS. LEBRON – The two stars were matched against each other with LeBron James starting at power forward. Blake Griffin had a big first quarter for the second straight game, scoring 12 after getting 13 at Miami on Saturday. There numbers were virtually identical at halftime: Griffin 15 points, five rebounds and four assists; James 16 points, five rebounds and three assists. James was at the heart of Cleveland’s early third-quarter explosion, though, as he scored 13 points in five minutes and went 3 of 3 from the 3-point arc in that span. Neither James nor Griffin played in the fourth quarter, which began with the Cavs leading by 20 and never dipped below 17. Griffin finished with 25 points, eight rebounds and five assists; James with 31 points, seven rebounds and seven assists.

3-NANCE’S IMPACT – When Stan Van Gundy heard that Tristan Thompson would miss the game with an ankle injury, he was hit with a mild sense of dread. Thompson does what he does – rebound and protect the rim – very well, but he’s not much of a game-plan distraction on offense. Sure enough, the guy who replaced Thompson in the lineup – recently acquired Larry Nance Jr. – had a huge game. Nance finished with 22 points and 15 rebounds in 32 minutes after recording a double-double (18 points, 10 boards) in 19 first-half minutes in which he had five dunks, most on lobs or drop passes where Andre Drummond had to leave him to cut off penetration. Even little-used big man Ante Zizic helped the Cavs with four points and three boards in five first-half minutes and six points and six rebounds for the game.

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