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Pistons give up big lead, then come back to grab one they couldn’t afford to lose

AUBURN HILLS – The Bulls put their blueprint on display Tuesday night. So did the Pistons, a radically different one.

Chicago’s fate rests in the hands of its star power. Even while playing their fourth game in five nights, Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg rode Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade, a month away from his 35th birthday, about as hard as they can be ridden.

Stan Van Gundy, meanwhile, countered with his bench for a fourth-quarter comeback that gave the Pistons a win they had to have – or as much as an early-December game can count as critical.

“That group played extremely well. They just turned the game, played great defense and held them to 19 points in the fourth quarter,” Van Gundy said after the 102-91 win. “It wasn’t numbers with those guys. It was just they played very, very well at both ends and we stuck with them to finish the game.”

It was Ish Smith, playing the last 16 minutes and finishing with 10 assists and zero turnovers. And Darrun Hilliard, who scored nine points and hit a huge three with 7:28 to go to cap a 12-0 run and give the Pistons an eight-point lead. And Jon Leuer, who also went the final 16 minutes. And Aron Baynes, who played nearly 15 second-half minutes and finished with eight points and nine boards and did the bulk of his damage during that critical run.

“We had it rolling, so he just let us play,” said Leuer, who contributed three points, three boards and a steal in a fourth quarter the Pistons won 31-19 after squandering a 17-point second-quarter lead and trailing by four after a Nikola Mirotic triple with 10:21 to play. “You appreciate that as a player when a group has it going like that, regardless if you’re a bench player, a starter, whatever. If a group has it going, it’s good to just let them ride it out.”

That might come in especially useful to the Pistons on Wednesday in Charlotte, when they’ll try to duplicate last week’s 23-point win over the Hornets. Other than Tobias Harris, who played 40 minutes as the scoring anchor of the bench unit, Van Gundy’s starters should be fresh – everyone from Reggie Jackson (18 minutes in his second game back from injury) to Andre Drummond (less than 25 minutes thanks to Baynes’ work in relief).

“Coach is a great coach,” Smith said. “He goes with who’s hot, who’s rolling. Our second team was rolling pretty well. Tomorrow night, our first team might roll and we might only play 20 minutes. But it’s just all how the game goes. When you’re a team, you rejoice in whoever’s playing, who’s out there rolling. And tonight, our second team played really well.”

The first team played well enough early to give the Pistons a 51-34 lead with a little less than four minutes left in the first half. But with Van Gundy trying to protect Jackson, Drummond and Marcus Morris from a third foul before halftime, the Bulls – powered by free throws, mostly from Butler and Wade – closed on a 10-0 run. When they opened the third quarter on a 6-0 spurt, it was game on.

“At one point, it was 26-5 (attempts) on the line,” Van Gundy said. “That was the whole thing that had gotten them in the lead, going to the free-throw line. We didn’t do a real good job there.”

Butler gave the Bulls 32 points in a whopping 43 minutes. When he went to the bench with 9:29 left in the game, Chicago held a 75-74 lead after Harris nailed a triple to answer Mirotic’s. That launched the 12-0 Pistons run, six of those points coming in the 104 seconds Butler sat – the entirety of his second-half rest. Wade added 19 and together they made 19 of 20 free throws.

Hilliard and Leuer were a team-best plus-17 in their minutes, Baynes plus-16 and Smith plus-14. The depth Van Gundy built over the off-season, signing Smith and Leuer, continues to pay off. And Hilliard bounced back from a tough game in the loss to Orlando two nights earlier.

“Just shows that he trusts us. Just shows he has confidence in us,” Hilliard said. “At any time when the starters aren’t up to par, he knows he can go to the bench and we’ll come out with energy.”

“That’s really hard for guys like Marcus, Andre and Reggie,” Van Gundy said. “(Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) got back in, but for Marcus, Andre and Reggie, that’s really hard. They are really good players and they want to be in those situations and it’s tough for them. To me, it would’ve been hard to pull that group off of the floor, as well as they were playing. It’s not like they were hanging in there or outplaying the other group. They were dominating that stretch and there was no way to break up that lineup.”