Instant replay: Big early lead vanishes as Pistons bench again struggles in loss

Andre Drummond finished with 19 points and 14 rebounds and was on the floor with the second unit when San Antonio turned the game early in the second quarter.
Chris Schwegler/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

DETROIT – If an MVP candidacy can be built on the stark differences between how a team performs with and without the guy whose name is on the marquee, then Blake Griffin is on the short list.

And Monday night’s 119-107 loss to San Antonio will be Exhibit B, right after Saturday’s five-point loss to Utah is entered as Exhibit A. Again, it was a stretch to start the second quarter while Griffin took a breather that turned the game 180 degrees.

It was a 14-0 Utah run to turn Saturday’s loss after the Pistons took a 31-13 lead after one quarter and it was a 15-0 San Antonio run that began the instant Griffin went to the bench with less than a minute left in the first quarter that turned Monday’s loss.

“Another good start and whatever we’ve got to do to sustain that,” said Dwane Casey, who tried to shake things up in both halves to revitalize his injury-depleted bench. “I think once we get our second unit back, that’s going to be a huge help. In the meantime, we’ve got to make sure we’re ready to pump the gas or whatever we’ve got to do to get going in the second quarter.”

When Griffin re-entered the game five minutes into the second quarter, a seven-point lead had turned into a nine-point deficit. The Pistons were outscored 18-2 in that span, going scoreless on their first seven possessions of the second quarter.

Two games isn’t exactly a trend, but when the results are as dramatic as they’ve been for the Pistons the past two games you pay attention. Casey kept Andre Drummond out with the second unit to start the second quarter. In the second half, he sprinkled bench players into the lineup in the third quarter and then got better play to start the fourth with an all-bench unit that swapped Glenn Robinson III, just making his way back from an ankle injury, in for Langston Galloway.

But without Ish Smith pushing the pace and offering the constant threat of dribble penetration and minus Zaza Pachulia’s screening and passing from the elbows, it’s a slog to generate good shots.

“They are missed,” Drummond acknowledged. “Something I have to get adjusted to, being out there with the second unit, trying to figure out what those guys like to do and where I need to be on the floor to get guys in the best position to be successful. I’ll watch film and know what I need to do to better help those guys out.”

Griffin was a rock – again. He followed his 34-point outing against Utah with another efficient night, scoring another 34 on 13 of 21 shooting to go with eight assists. He sparked the fast start, scoring 13 in the first quarter. Griffin isn’t ready to accept the narrative of the Pistons starting fast and fading.

“It’s been the last two games,” he said. “I don’t think that’s our calling card. But there’s nothing wrong with getting off to a hot start. I think our focus and intensity level has been very high the past two games and we need to be able to sustain that for a lot longer. We’ve just got to find a way, whether it’s getting rest earlier or whatever it is we’ve got to find a way.”

The ineffectiveness of the Pistons bench – Jon Leuer and Luke Kennard scored 15 of their combined 20 points, evenly split, in the second half, but they had all but three of the bench points – became more glaring when it was Gregg Popovich’s bench that helped the Spurs turn momentum even before Casey went to his reserves. Popovich called two timeouts 15 seconds apart midway through the first quarter, yanking four starters after the second with the Pistons leading by 10 points.

There’s no timetable for Smith or Pachulia’s return, though Casey indicated after Sunday’s practice that they’re progressing. Smith suffered a torn adductor on Dec. 5 and Pachulia a calf injury on Dec. 30.

“We’re a little out of sorts with Zaza out, Ish out,” he said. “We’re trying to keep a Band-Aid on it until they get back.”