Pistons build 30-point lead, hang on to beat Hawks and go into break with a win

Blake Griffin finished one assist shy of a triple-double as the Pistons snapped a three-game losing streak to beat Atlanta
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

DETROIT – The Pistons missed maybe a half-dozen chances to get Blake Griffin his first triple-double since the trade that shocked the NBA less than three weeks ago, but it didn’t seem that it would have any impact on the outcome … until it did.

Really, Griffin should have been on the bench when Jameer Nelson missed an easy layup for what would have been his ninth assist early in the fourth quarter. Or when Anthony Tolliver stumbled to miss another layup set up by Griffin. Or when first James Ennis and then Reggie Bullock missed wide-open triples Griffin created for them from thin air.

So the triple-double that came up one assist shy wound up only the secondary story on a night the Pistons were spared the embarrassment – and the nearly fatal blow to their playoff chances it almost became – of blowing a 30-point lead to a lottery-bound team that was without three starters.

So … what do you take from the 104-98 win to snap a three-game losing streak: All the good of the first 32 minutes as the Pistons built a 30-point lead – or all the horrors of the last 16 minutes in which Atlanta sliced 26 points off of its deficit to give itself a puncher’s chance in the final 11 seconds?

“Both, I think,” said Griffin, who scored 13 points without scoring a two-point basket while grabbing a dozen rebounds and registering his nine assists. “The way we were moving the ball, playing defense to build that lead was great. Played really free. But then, obviously, on the flip side, giving up that many points, there’s no excuse for that. Those are games that I’ve lose in the playoffs and regular season and it doesn’t feel good. It also puts you going in the wrong direction, so I like that we closed it out but we’ve got to be smarter down the stretch.”

The Pistons led 74-44 with four minutes left in the third quarter after starting the second half on their second 17-2 run of the game when Stan Van Gundy pulled Griffin, Stanley Johnson and Reggie Bullock for their regular rest. The game turned right then. Atlanta scored on its last eight possessions of the quarter, scoring 17 points in 3:48, to cut its deficit to 21.

“Our bench came in and had a huge lead and didn’t even try defensively,” Van Gundy said. “Didn’t even make an effort. Let ’em back in the game. They got rolling and then the other guys got back in the game and didn’t play any defense, either. I’ll take the win and go to All-Star break, but that was an embarrassing fourth quarter.”

The Pistons will go to the All-Star break with a 28-29 record that leaves them just one game back of Miami in the loss column for the final playoff spot in the East after the Heat blew a 24-point lead to lose at Philadelphia, which played without Joel Embiid. Miami has the more favorable schedule – the Heat play just nine of their final 24 games on the road while the Pistons will play 15 of their 25 away from Little Caesars Arena – but the Pistons currently have a 2-1 series lead over the Heat and they anticipate getting Reggie Jackson back at some point in March to help lift their offense.

Griffin was encouraged by what he saw as better cohesion within the offense, at least.

“I thought our cutting was really good,” he said. “I thought our spacing was good for the most part. Even down toward the stretch, I thought we were running pretty good offense. We were just missing shots. We were getting opens shots and missing shots. I don’t think the offense was our biggest problem.”

“He made great passes. He should’ve had 13, 14, 15 assists,” Van Gundy said. “We’re missing wide-open shots, missing layups.”

Ish Smith finished with 22 points and nine assists and Andre Drummond had 13 points and 15 boards for the Pistons, who had seven players reach double figures. It could have turned into a nightmare, but it didn’t – and the Pistons get a badly needed week to rest after the emotional rollercoaster and physical grinder they’ve been through since the late-January trade upended the roster.

“It helps us out,” said Stanley Johnson, who scored 14 points. “We didn’t want to go lose another game and give ourselves a harder road when we get back, but I think the All-Star break will be good for our legs. We get a long road trip coming when we get back, so I’m excited. I can’t wait to get back.”

Even Van Gundy, though his stomach was in knots over surrendering 54 points in the game’s final 16 minutes, acknowledged the importance of the mental and physical break coming for his team.

“They’re going to get some rest and, hopefully, early (next) week to a little bit of running. But they need rest. It was our fourth game in six days, five in eight days. What should’ve happened it we should’ve been able to shut those guys down and not have to bring ’em back in the fourth quarter, but our bench didn’t want to play.”

It gave Blake Griffin a chance for a triple-double – and the Pistons almost needed that precious 10th assist to lock up a win that looked secured long before all the misses that could have given it to him.

FAST BREAKDOWN

Three quick observations from Friday night’s 110-98 loss to the Boston Celtics at Little Caesars Arena

1-COSTLY LOSS – Every loss exacts a pound of flesh now. The Pistons have precious little margin for error and can’t afford to lose many games – if any – at home or against teams with losing records or competing with them for a playoff berth. Friday’s loss counted in one of those categories, at least, as the Pistons lost one of their last 10 home games. Awful starts to the second and fourth quarters were a big part of their undoing in this one. A five-point first quarter lead disappeared when the Pistons managed just four points in nearly five minutes to start the second quarter. And a 7-0 Boston run as the Pistons went scoreless over the first 4:20 of the fourth quarter spanning seven possessions gave the Celtics a 16-point lead. The Pistons played well at both ends in the first quarter and led 28-23. Boston closed the first half with a 19-8 run over the final 4:29 to take a 12-point lead. The Celtics hit 11 of 21 first-half triples, getting 3-pointers from seven different players and having four players hit a pair of them. The Pistons opened 4 of 6 from three, but finished just 10 of 33. Boston hit 17 of 39 from the 3-point arc, matching the season high for triples – reached four times previously – against the Pistons this season.

2-BENCH BEATING – Stan Van Gundy’s rotation coming out of the All-Star break included four bench players – Anthony Tolliver, James Ennis, Luke Kennard and Jameer Nelson. Boston’s bench got by far the better of the matchup, outscoring Van Gundy’s 65-21. Particularly effective for the Celtics were German rookie Daniel Theis, who easily topped his previous career best by scoring 19 points to go with 12 rebounds. Ex-Piston Marcus Morris finished with 15, Marcus Smart 12 and Terry Rozier 11 to give Boston four bench scorers in double figures. The odd men out for the Pistons were Eric Moreland in the frontcourt and Langston Galloway in the backcourt. Bypassing Moreland risks extended minutes for Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond. Griffin played 19 first-half minutes and 35 for the game and couldn’t get much to fall, finishing with 17 points on 5 of 19 shooting. Drummond finished with 15 points and 17 rebounds. Tolliver was first off the bench for Griffin, then Ennis replaced Stanley Johnson, followed by Nelson taking over for Ish Smith and, finally, Kennard replacing Reggie Bullock. The Boston game was the first of three games in four nights and six in the first nine days after the All-Star break.


3-ISH VS. KYRIE
– Ish Smith opened the game as the primary defender on Kyrie Irving and Smith played Irving mostly to a draw after Stan Van Gundy had always used somebody other than his point guard against him in the past, whether in Cleveland or Boston. Smith finished with 20 points and six assists, Irving with 18 points and six assists. It was Irving’s best game of the three the two teams have played this season – and the first in which he hasn’t been guarded by Avery Bradley. The Pistons replaced Tobias Harris’ 18 points a game with Blake Griffin’s 22 points a game, so it’s pretty easy to argue that the biggest void created by the trade is the absence of Bradley’s defense against top-flight guards. Van Gundy matched Bradley’s minutes against Irving in the first two Pistons-Celtics matchups and Bradley kept Irving contained to the tune of 34 total points on 10 of 28 shooting in the two matchups. Smith hit his first eight shots of the game.

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