Losing streak at 7 as Pistons offense hits rock bottom

Avery Bradley’s night epitomized the Pistons offensive struggles as he finished with six points on 2 of 10 shooting in their loss to Denver
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)

DETROIT – In the first six losses of what is now a nightmarish seven-game losing streak, the Pistons had some place to plant their flag. In the last five of them, they were in the game until the final minute. If you can find something worth salvaging from consecutive loss No. 7, you’re a candidate for president of your local Optimists Club chapter.

“It was extremely bad basketball,” Stan Van Gundy said. “Mindless basketball. Forcing plays. No energy.”

The starters looked like five strangers thrown together at the local Y. By the time Van Gundy began yanking them, one by one, more than seven minutes into the first quarter, they’d already fallen behind by double digits. The Pistons committed 10 turnovers in the first quarter alone.

The only spark of the night came from an all-bench unit of Boban Marjanovic, Ish Smith, Langston Galloway, Luke Kennard and Anthony Tolliver. By the time Van Gundy had to start giving them a breather four minutes into the second quarter, they’d shaved a 12-point deficit to three. It grew to nine again by halftime and then very quickly to 20 to start the second half when Denver scored on its first six possessions.

As bad as the starters were offensively to start the game, they were that poor defensively to start the second half. The plus/minus numbers told a grim tale for Van Gundy’s five starters, a group that included Reggie Bullock in for the slumping Stanley Johnson. It ranged from Reggie Jackon’s minus-23 to Andre Drummond’s minus-29.

“It’s starting to be a little frustrating the way we’re coming out,” Jackson said. “We’re not coming out swinging. Just got to do what we’ve got to do – come out and just fight, kick, scratch, scream and find a way to be the aggressor.”

Jackson scored 12 points and was the only starter in double figures. Over the last two games – Sunday’s loss to Boston before Tuesday’s stinker – Pistons starters have made a grand total of 23 baskets and shot 26.7 percent. A team that ended November ranked No. 7 in offense is dead last over the seven games of December.

Which begs the question: how?

“I feel like lately we haven’t been shooting the ball very well and part of that is just not shooting the ball well but part of that is too many guys trying to just force it,” Anthony Tolliver said. “It’s not in a selfish way, but in a way like, oh, man, we’ve got to get it going and instead of trusting the process and trusting each other – it’s not just one person, it’s several guys – trying to overcompensate.

“My message to everybody today was just relax. Everybody looks uptight. Everybody looks like the weight of the world is on their shoulders and you can’t play like that. Hopefully have a good practice tomorrow, get these guys’ heads up and move forward.”

The Pistons, once 14-6, are now just a game over .500 at 14-13. They’ve played a grueling schedule over the past month. Starting with a Nov. 15 visit to Milwaukee, only Phoenix among their last 14 opponents is unlikely to be a playoff team. And they’d played three of the league’s top four defensive teams in the last eight days. But Denver is a bottom-10 defensive team – though a top-10 offensive team – and still the Pistons shot 35 percent and committed 21 turnovers.

Their confidence has taken a hit and now the spillover effect has muted their competitive spirit. That can’t happen or the tailspin threatens the final two-thirds of the season.

Van Gundy put the onus squarely on himself first but then on the four players who’ll define the season. Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley combined to shoot 2 of 17 with seven turnovers, all in the first half. Andre Drummond had more turnovers (six) than points (five). Jackson was 1 of 5 from the 3-point arc with only two assists in 25 minutes.

“I’m not running from responsibility,” he said. “It’s my job to put a product on the floor. We didn’t play well on Sunday, but our guys competed. I’ve got to try to find answers. We didn’t do anything tonight. We didn’t compete. We didn’t bring any energy to the game. That’s on me as a coach.”

Asked about the potential for further lineup changes after executing the Bullock-for-Johnson swap, Van Gundy said, “We can make whatever changes we want, but you can’t make changes to punish guys. The answer for us is Tobias, Andre, Avery and Reggie Jackson. Those four guys are our four best players – my opinion, anyway – and those guys have to play better. We can sit ’em all down and play the other guys, (but) we’re not going to be a good team unless those four guys play better. Period.”

They get the chance to hit the reset button against Atlanta on Thursday, a team dead last in the Eastern Conference at 6-21. It’s a great chance to end the streak – or a setup for a loss that would raise the panic level a few more notches.

“We just have to continue to battle,” said Langston Galloway, one of the rare Pistons who shot it well, hitting 5 of 7 triples in an 18-point performance. “We’re all just trying to find ways to win games. It’s like everbody’s so antsy and trying to get over this hump any way they can. If we continue to stick to the little things, we’ll nip this in the bud.”

FAST BREAKDOWN

Three quick observations from Thursday night’s 105-91 win over the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena

1-ABOUT TIME – It was 15 days that seemed like two months. The Pistons, cruising along at 14-6 when November ended, finally won their first game of December, snapping a seven-game losing streak. Not before a few uneasy minutes, though. Atlanta had 20 points on the board and an eight-point cushion midway through the first quarter, when they shot 71 percent and hit 5 of 6 triples. But the Pistons took a 13-point halftime lead with a 10-0 closing rush and opened the third quarter on a 7-0 spurt to go up by 20. After performing as the NBA’s worst offense in December, the Pistons got comfortable against Atlanta’s 29th ranked defense. Andre Drummond dominated the inside, grabbing 13 of his 19 rebounds by halftime and nearly recording his first career triple-double. He exited the game with two minutes left, the Pistons comfortably ahead, with 12 points, 19 rebounds and a career-high nine assists. Tobias Harris (19 points) and Avery Bradley (18 points) led the Pistons after struggling of late to make shots.

2-THE GALLO-WAY – The Pistons only went with two true point guards on the roster this season because they felt Langston Galloway gave them protection with his ability to play both backcourt spots. Galloway had only played point guard late in games already decided until this one, but it might warrant another look or two based on early returns. With Ish Smith in early foul trouble and Reggie Jackson needing a rest, Galloway opened the second quarter at the point and he led a unit that hadn’t played together all season – Stanley Johnson, Luke Kennard, Eric Moreland and Anthony Tolliver alongside Galloway – to an 8-0 run to start the quarter. When Jackson returned midway through the quarter, the Pistons had turned a 31-30 deficit into a 41-35 lead. Galloway scored 11 first-half points and the Pistons were plus-18 in his time, holding a 13-point halftime lead. Coming off a season-high 18 points on Tuesday, Galloway finished with 17 points and hit 5 of 8 from the 3-point arc.

3-BULLOCK ALERT – Stan Van Gundy stuck with Reggie Bullock in the starting lineup even though Bullock didn’t do much scoring (six points) and the starters played their worst game of the season collectively in Tuesday’s loss to Denver. Bullock came into the game 3 of 20 from the 3-point arc for the season, but he made a pair in the first half and finished with a season-high 10 points. When Bullock gets hot, he gets red hot.
He went through a similar rough stretch in his first season with the Pistons (2015-16) when he made the team with an outstanding preseason but they shot 1 of 17 in the first 10 games of the season to lose his grip on a rotation spot. But he was a big part of the playoff run that season, shooting 49 percent from the 3-point arc after the All-Star break. Bullock’s appeal rests not only in his 3-point stroke, but his cutting and ball movement on offense and ball pressure defensively. He’s also a player Van Gundy knows is comfortable in a complementary role and doesn’t need the ball to play effectively.

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