Pistons falter late as Cavs tighten D and pull away to stretch loss streak to 8

Anthony Tolliver hit 5 first-half 3-point shots and finished with a season-high 20 points as the Pistons lost at Cleveland.
David Fryar
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

CLEVELAND – Forty minutes into the second half of a back to back against teams that have a shot to face each other in the NBA Finals, the Pistons were tied with Cleveland on its home court. They’d already scored 95 points and were within three assists of tying their season high of 32.

Whether what came next was simply a team running out of gas or Cleveland turning up the heat at winning time or something else, who knows? But all of a sudden those wide-open shots the Pistons created consistently dried up. LeBron James, who vacillated from passive bystander to efficient facilitator to that point, became assertive MVP-level LeBron James.

And Cleveland scored 26 of the game’s final 35 points to win going away, 121-104. The Pistons have lost eight straight games and 12 of 15 without Reggie Jackson.

The Cavs talked afterward about their intent to play faster in the fourth quarter, fully aware the Pistons caught the full brunt of Oklahoma City’s force 24 hours earlier at Little Caesars Arena. Cleveland was credited with only two fast-break points officially in the fourth quarter, which will make Stan Van Gundy smirk.

He said before the game that official fast-break points were always a little “iffy” and what the official box score attests to what happened in the fourth quarter didn’t match what Van Gundy witnessed.

“We didn’t run back on defense,” he said. “We had three things today. We had to get back. We had to rebound the ball on the defensive board. And we had to take care of the ball. We did a great job taking care of the ball” – the Pistons committed a season-low six turnovers – “and we had 90 percent off the defensive boards. We gave up 20 fast-break points – ballgame.”

There were no conflicting analyses from his players.

“They got us in transition,” said Anthony Tolliver, moved to the starting lineup mostly for the favorable defensive matchup with Kevin Love but who responded with a season-high 20 points and five assists. “Got several buckets without our defense set, back and matched up. LeBron really pushed it and put a lot of pressure on our defense.”

“We’ve just got to give more of a conscious effort of getting back and talking to each other in transition,” Tobias Harris agreed. “That’s the biggest thing. We’re having some confusion. We’re not talking as much as we need to each other and we’ve just got to have more of an emphasis on that.”

To the extent the Pistons had success blunting Cleveland’s transition offense, it was in their offensive efficiency through three-plus quarters. But when the offense stagnated – through fatigue or Cleveland’s sudden sense of urgency or some combination thereof – the Cavs pounced at the chance to get the ball off the glass and run.

The Pistons shot 47 percent through three quarters but just 29 percent in their 17-point fourth quarter.

“We just stopped moving the ball, stopped moving bodies,” Tolliver said. “In the first three quarters, three and a half quarters, we really moved the ball. We were really aggressive but at the same time making the extra pass and being unselfish. Toward the end, I feel guys started just pressing the issue a little too much. We started standing around too much, the bodies stopped moving, so guys felt obligated to go one on one.”

Van Gundy made a few other rotation moves besides Tolliver in the starting lineup for Stanley Johnson. Ish Smith was back at point guard after coming off the bench for two games, though he was responsible for five of the team’s six turnovers. Dwight Buycks was his backup after Langston Galloway started the previous two games. Eric Moreland was used behind Andre Drummond over Boban Marjanovic, a response to the greater threat Cleveland poses from the 3-point arc in addition to its pick-and-roll playbook with James and Isaiah Thomas.

The reconstituted bench was excellent in the first half as the Pistons built a 61-58 lead, but didn’t take advantage in the second half when James rested.

“The bench did a really good job in the first half and then in the second half they came in and didn’t run back on defense,” Van Gundy said. “It sort of turned the game at a time where it shouldn’t have. You’ve got to make runs when LeBron’s on the bench. You have to.”

The Pistons get another shot to do so at home on Tuesday against Cleveland, the season-long eight-game losing streak weighing a little heavier on them with each disappointing result. If nothing else, the need to be more responsible in transition defense will be freshly on their minds.

“We’ve had a couple of games through this bad stretch where our offense wasn’t so good, but that hasn’t been the issue,” Tolliver said. “It’s been the defensive inconsistency. It’s just been stretches where we’ll give up a 6-, 8-0 run and you do that enough times where they’re getting easy buckets, layups and open shots, it’s going to be hard to win. We’ve got to limit those types of runs and those types of shots and hopefully on Tuesday against these guys we can watch film and learn from our mistakes.”

FAST BREAKDOWN

Three quick observations from Sunday night’s 121-104 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena

1-FOURTH-QUARTER FIZZLE – Against the NBA’s worst defensive team – yup, that’s what Cleveland is overall this season and by an even more pronounced margin over the past month – the Pistons, ranked 28th on offense since Reggie Jackson’s injury, didn’t have much trouble generating points for three quarters. They’d amassed 87 points to that point, scoring 28, 33 and 26 points by quarter. But the Cavs showed they can still turn it up when they need to, holding the Pistons to 17 fourth-quarter points. It was tied at 95 four minutes into the quarter when Cleveland went on a 9-2 run to take a seven-point lead that the Pistons couldn’t get below four. It was a 26-9 run to close the game for the Cavs, who hit 15 of 35 from the 3-point line. Cleveland put little pressure on the ball and the Pistons only committed six turnovers, a season low, while racking up 31 assists, one off their season high. Cleveland, though struggling on the road, had won 15 of its last 17 at home almost exclusively on the strength of one of the league’s top offenses. That was also on display as the Cavs generated points in transition and did their usual damage from the 3-point arc with seven different players making at least one triple. Anthony Tolliver hit five first-half triples and finished with a season-high 20 points, one of five Pistons in double figures. Tolliver also added five assists, one of seven Pistons with at least three assists.

2-LINEUP SHUFFLE – With Avery Bradley unavailable after aggravating the groin injury that forced him to miss seven games last month and receive an injection 10 days ago, Stan Van Gundy rejiggered the lineup. Some of it likely would have happened anyway, largely the decision to start Anthony Tolliver and Tobias Harris at forward. Tolliver is the best matchup for Kevin Love, who has given the Pistons trouble dating to the 2015-16 season when the teams met in the playoffs. Ish Smith, after two games coming off the bench for Langston Galloway, was back in the starting lineup. Reggie Bullock replaced Bradley. The changes to the starting lineup triggered a few corresponding changes with the bench unit. Dwight Buycks again assumed backup duties, pushing Galloway out of the rotation, and Eric Moreland played over Boban Marjanovic as Andre Drummond’s backup.

3-A LITTLE BETTER – Tobias Harris has been in a deep 3-point shooting slump over the seven-game losing streak the Pistons carried into tipoff with Cleveland, shooting just 23 percent (8 of 35) over the seven games. He missed his first two at Cleveland before hitting an open corner three to put the Pistons ahead 40-37 about four minutes into the second quarter. On the next possession, though, Harris – in hustling after a loose ball that was already going to result in a Cleveland over-and-back turnover – was whistled for his third foul for apparently jostling Jeff Green in pursuit of the ball and also came up limping. Harris went to the locker room momentarily, then returned to the bench and received treatment for the injury. Harris came back to start the second half and missed two quick 3-pointers before making two in the third quarter and finishing 4 of 11 from the arc.

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