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