Pistons bury themselves in 23-point hole, then comeback falls short as Hornets stay alive
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Three quick observations from Sunday afternoon’s 104-92 loss to the Charlotte Hornets at Little Caesars Arena
BACKS TO THE WALL – Jeremy Lamb’s game-winning 3-pointer against Toronto on Friday kept Charlotte alive for Sunday’s game against the Pistons and the Hornets treated that second chance with reverence. After falling behind 16-9 in the first five minutes, they outscored the Pistons 51-21 over the next 17 minutes by jamming the middle and watching the Pistons misfire from the perimeter. At the other end, Charlotte – and nemesis Kemba Walker, especially – penetrated at will, scoring 34 first-half points in the paint. It looked especially bleak for the Pistons, who got little from anyone not named Ish Smith off the bench for much of the game, shot poorly from the 3-point arc and couldn’t string defensive stops together. But they scored the last six points of the third quarter to cut their deficit to eight after trailing by 23 late in the second quarter and scored the first seven of the fourth quarter to pull within one with more than eight minutes to play. They had the chance to take the lead on three straight possessions, but came up empty on all of them before Frank Kaminsky’s triple with 5:54 to play. The Pistons didn’t get closer than two after that. The loss wasn’t crippling to the Pistons, but it reduces their margin for error to close to zero. If they close the season with wins over Memphis and New York, they’ll be in the playoffs. The Hornets were without three rotation players – starters Cody Zeller and Marvin Williams and defensive stopper Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – but they still had Kemba Walker, Pistons bedeviler. Charlotte swept all four games from the Pistons this season. Walker scored 31 points to lead Charlotte, though it required him taking 29 shots. Kaminsky’s contributions were more devastating as he scored 24 off of the bench.
PARED ROTATION – It was perhaps a reaction to the matchup Zaza Pachulia would have had against Charlotte’s second unit big men – or perhaps an acknowledgment of the stakes in a playoff chase – but Dwane Casey pared his frontcourt rotation by eliminating Pachulia. That meant Thon Maker was the only big man used off of the bench, playing center alongside Blake Griffin or power forward next to Andre Drummond. Without Cody Zeller, Charlotte’s backup center was Frank Kaminsky, who is far more effective playing on the perimeter than in the paint. Griffin, playing in his second game since missing three straight with left knee soreness, didn’t play with the same force he did in scoring 45 points at Oklahoma City on Friday. He dived on the floor early to save a possession that yielded a Wayne Ellington triple, but spent time in the locker room in the first half. Perhaps indicative of the status of his knee, midway through the third quarter Griffin had an open path to the basket but chose a gentle layup over a slam dunk. He finished with 16 points, shooting 5 of 18, and picked up a technical foul with 1:39 remaining. Drummond played 42 minutes – he didn’t come out after halftime – and finished with 15points and 23 rebounds. Maker shot just 1 of 7, his only basket a dunk off of Drummond’s assist, and scored two points to go with six rebounds in 20 minutes.
BENCH BLUES – When the Pistons have all three of Wayne Ellington, Langston Galloway and Luke Kennard giving them efficient scoring – and that almost always means 3-point shooting with them – they’re at their best. When they have two of the three involved, they’re a tough out. When they have only one of them contributing or have all three struggling, well, you get the lethargic offense that they put on display in Sunday’s first half. Ellington gave the Pistons 14 points and hit 3 of 8 from the 3-point arc, but Kennard and Galloway combined for nine points, seven from Kennard, after a scoreless first half. Kennard, who’s struggled through a foot injury that kept him out of Monday’s loss at Indiana and has been using a walking boot between games, took only two shots in 16 minutes of Friday’s loss at Oklahoma City and was scoreless until scoring the first five points of the fourth quarter. He hit just 1 of 4 from the 3-point arc.
Ish Smith scored the first 17 points for Dwane Casey’s bench before Kennard got in the books and wound up leading the Pistons with 20 points. Charlotte’s bench outscored Detroit’s 43-31.