No finishing kick for Pistons after recovering from cold start in loss at Toronto

TORONTO – It could have been a humiliation. Instead it turned out to be another loss.

“I think in the last three quarters, we fought hard,” Stan Van Gundy said after the Pistons lost 96-91 to Toronto. “But the first quarter counts, too.”

Too bad about that. Because the Pistons looked like they were playing basketball with hockey equipment in a first quarter in which they spotted Toronto a 26-11 lead before closing it to a little more reasonable 31-18 when it was over.

The Pistons had a handful of plays that signal the lack of focus Van Gundy and his players often cite when discussing their defensive lapses. On balance, the Pistons remain a top-10 NBA defensive team and surrendering 96 points to an opponent with two All-Star guards is a minor victory. But they yielded two Toronto layups in the first quarter on direct inbounds passes and the opportunity for six more points by twice fouling 3-point shooters.

With the Pistons missing their offensive lynchpin, Reggie Jackson, and also going without Luke Kennard and Stanley Johnson in a depleted perimeter core, they have to be razor sharp across 48 minutes defensively to stay within reach of most teams and especially elite ones.

Van Gundy cited a recent trend of especially troubling first quarters defensively with the Pistons consistently putting themselves in a position of fighting uphill.

“We haven’t been good,” Tobias Harris said. “Our focus level really hasn’t been where it needs to be defensively. That’s on everybody. We have to be more locked in to the game plan and what we need to do. A lot of it just comes down to us trusting each other. I think we’re going out there more – because we know we haven’t been playing good defense – focused on our guy instead of focusing on the whole team thing. That’s kind of where it’s going and that’s where it needs to stop, too.”

The lethargy got squeezed out of the Pistons in part by the more alert and energetic play of a second unit that had some new faces. With Kennard missing the game with a sore left thumb – he warmed up and felt he couldn’t go, then just before tipoff told trainer Jon Ishop he’d give it a try but Van Gundy didn’t want to risk exacerbating the injury – Langston Galloway came out of mothballs to provide a spark.

Concerned about the lack of scoring off the bench due to the injury situation, Van Gundy used Boban Marjanovic over Eric Morleand behind Andre Drummond. Galloway, Marjanovic and Anthony Tolliver combined for 21 first-half points as the Pistons pulled within three at the break.

They managed a few second-half leads and when Galloway’s triple fell with 10 minutes to play, they were up four. But a Harris turnover with a chance to stretch the lead further on the next possession led to a C.J. Miles triple. Two more triples later in the quarter – the first from Kyle Lowry, the second from Miles – put the Raptors up seven with five minutes to go.

The Pistons were playing hard at that point, but Van Gundy lamented the defensive lapses that led to both of those triples.

“You’re working out of that hole and then late in the game we have a chance and we’re not up on two pick and rolls and Lowry and Miles hit back to back threes,” he said. “All we’ve got to do is be up. Between the first quarter and then, we fought really hard. And then when it was winning time, we didn’t do our job.”

Nobody executed a bigger in-game U-turn that Andre Drummond, who looked listless in the first quarter and exited with two points and three rebounds in nine minutes. Over the last three quarters, Drummond put up 23 points and 14 rebounds, 11 and seven in the third quarter alone.

But the lack of focus early and the lack of execution late hung over the loss, which dropped the Pistons to 22-21 and 3-7 in the 10 games they’ve played without Jackson since his Dec. 26 ankle injury.

“It’s a concern,” Avery Bradley, who finished with 19 points, said of the recent trend of poor defensive openings. “For the starters, I feel like we have to be the ones that start off playing the right way on the defensive end and having everybody else follow suit. We haven’t been doing a very good job with that.”

Bradley played 35 minutes despite feeling a recurrence of the groin injury that cost him seven games last month and sitting out Tuesday’s practice. He said he’s scheduled to visit a specialist in Philadelphia on Thursday and expects an injection to be administered. He hit two triples in the final two minutes after the Pistons had fallen behind by nine points, but also gnashed his teeth over the team’s five fourth-quarter turnovers and defensive breakdowns to allow Toronto its critical 3-pointers.

“We had some lapses on the defensive end and not only that we were turning the ball over,” he said. “We weren’t playing guys how we were supposed to defend them. They just made some plays down the stretch and we weren’t able to make shots and we were turning the ball over.”

In other words, too many mistakes for a team that’s seen injuries whittle its margin for error to the bone.