Pistons build 30-point lead, hang on to beat Hawks and go into break with a win
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
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.