Pistons battle back but come up short in 5th straight road loss
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NEW ORLEANS – Coaching in the NBA is like playing whack-a-mole. Every time you get one problem solved, another pokes its head through the weeds.
The latest bugaboo confronting Stan Van Gundy: less than robust defense on the road. He describes it in a little less genteel terms.
“Five straight. We’ve lost five straight on the road and all of ’em have been horrendous defensive efforts,” he said after the 112-109 loss to New Orleans. “Every one of ’em. Dallas, Orlando, Miami, Philly and tonight. Pathetic defensive efforts.”
The Pistons dug themselves another double-digit hole in the first quarter but did well to pull within three points when it was over at 37-34. If they ever could have gotten their defensive issues resolved, they were going to score often enough against the NBA’s No. 25 defense to put themselves in position to win.
They almost did anyway, though it took providence intervening midway through the third quarter when Anthony Davis, Pistons killer, twisted his ankle and left the game with 30 points and 10 rebounds in 29 minutes.
Van Gundy usually starts Anthony Tolliver against teams that play two big men – and nobody has two big men quite like the Pelicans pair of Davis and DeMarcus Cousins – but he chose continuity coming off a big win over Houston and stuck with Reggie Bullock, meaning Tobias Harris drew the defensive assignment on Davis.
“It was a mistake – that’s what it was,” Van Gundy said. “We had played well last game. Bullock had been playing well. We kept him in but that was a mistake on my part.”
Tolliver started the second half, though, and that’s when New Orleans opened its biggest lead by going on a 17-8 run to open the third quarter. The Pelicans shot 56 percent for the game. Van Gundy didn’t have to remind them – he did, but nobody in the locker room felt it wasn’t valid – that their defense failed them at every turn.
“There needs to be somebody in the starting lineup to start that defensive mentality and make it contagious,” Avery Bradley said. “I take the blame for it. I feel like it needs to be me. I need to come out with a defensive mentality and focus on that and let my teammates feed off my energy.”
“It’s definitely our focus,” Tobias Harris said. “Our focus and our mindset. When we’re on the road, we can’t play backed off. We’ve got to bring the heat to whoever we’re playing, so it’s going to be our mindset and it’s going to be what we need to bring to the next game – that focus that we need to get stops and really impose our will from the start.”
Harris and Bradley led the offense, Harris with 25 and Bradley with 24. The Pistons also got 16 points and 14 rebounds from Andre Drummond, who’d missed two of the last three games with bruised right ribs but logged nearly 39 minutes against the New Orleans big men. Ish Smith added 16. The Pistons scored plenty enough to win. But at the other end …
“Coach has talked about it,” Smith said. “We’ve got to find it, but we can’t make it a big deal. We’ve got to go out there and guard every night like we’re at home. We’ve got to travel. When you’re constantly saying something, it can get in your head. We’ve got to come out and guard and defend and hold that throughout the whole 48 minutes.”
For all of that, the Pistons still had their shot to win thanks to equally leaky defense from New Orleans, a strong night at the foul line (19 of 22) and superior bench play.
The bench brought the Pistons a six-point lead in the second quarter, but the Pelicans rallied to take a three-point halftime lead and started the third quarter with the same deadly offensive efficiency.
The Pistons closed the quarter on a 20-8 run to pull within two points. They led by three with 10:30 left when Cousins re-entered. Quiet to that point – five points, six boards in nearly 30 minutes – Cousins scored 11 points in less than three minutes to turn the game back around.
Cousins had 15 points and four boards in the fourth quarter and New Orleans led by eight with five minutes to play, but the Pistons had a third comeback in them. Bullock’s driving layup with two minutes left tied it at 105.
But their defense failed them a few final times, allowing Cousins to score on a put-back for a two-point lead and then – after Smith missed a point-blank put-back of Bradley’s missed triple – Rajon Rondo went end to end for a layup and a four-point lead.
The Pistons cut it to two on a Drummond dunk with 39 seconds left and had a chance to tie or take the lead after Cousins missed a triple. Bradley missed a triple with 12 seconds left, then after the Pelicans split a pair at the line the Pistons had one more chance, down three, with five seconds to play. They designed a play to get Harris a shot but New Orleans denied him the ball, so Smith hit Bradley in the corner. Rondo made it a tough shot and the Pistons didn’t get the bounce they needed. Van Gundy didn’t expect any break from the basketball gods.
“I don’t think our effort’s even close to good,” he said. “I admire the resolve, hanging in the game tonight, but at the end of the day we didn’t deserve to win with what we put out there tonight.”