Pistons go down 3-0 as Cavs big fourth-quarter triples repel late charge

The Pistons have held leads in the second halves of all three games of their playoff series with Cleveland and all three have eluded their fingertips – Game 3, quite literally.

No play more symbolically defined the 101-91 Game 3 loss – a deceiving final score for a game in which neither team led by more than six points over three quarters and the Pistons were within one point with six minutes to go and two with four to play – than the LeBron James missed layup that at least two and maybe three Pistons could have scooped up. Finally it rolled at Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s feet, within an arm’s reach of Stan Van Gundy on the Pistons bench.

But he fumbled it and Cleveland got another precious 24 seconds to probe against a Pistons team that played sound defense most of the night but had to defend against too many second-chance possessions.

“Rebounding’s been one of our strengths all year,” Van Gundy said. “It’s been terrible in this series.”

Cleveland held a 46-32 rebounding advantage, largely going away from the smaller lineups that dominated their Game 2 win, with Tristan Thompson grabbing eight of Cleveland’s 12 offensive boards. The Pistons had five – or what Andre Drummond averaged by himself during the regular season. Drummond had three, Aron Baynes two.

Drummond is averaging 8.3 rebounds, more than six rebounds a game under his regular-season average of 14.8 which led the league. Some of it is Drummond being pulled away from the basket when Cleveland did go small – he wound up guarding shooting guard Iman Shumpert for stretches – and some of it is the Cavs cleaning up offensive rebounds when Drummond challenges shots off penetration, though that happened all the time in the regular season, as well.

“I think I did a good job of boxing (Thompson) out today,” Drummond said. “I can’t really control when it’s a long rebound. My job is to keep him inside the paint. I wouldn’t say he grabbed eight rebounds. Some of them fell in his hands.”

All those extra possessions – the Cavs held a 17-9 edge in second-chance points – combined with another lopsided edge for Cleveland from the 3-point line (36 points to 18 for the Pistons) have pushed the Pistons to the brink.

“Basically, it’s win or go home,” Tobias Harris said after the Pistons lose the first playoff game hosted by The Palace since April 26, 2009 – also against Cleveland. “That’s how we approach it. We have to give our all out there and we have to leave it on the floor.”

Effort hasn’t been the issue for the Pistons, but execution has been lacking. Van Gundy was terse with his postgame answers, but it was clear the mistakes he saw at both ends will give him a restless night as he mulls what other adjustments are possible for Game 4.

Too many of those mistakes, at both ends, came in the final four minutes. After Reggie Jackson zinged a spot-on baseball pass to Caldwell-Pope for a hammer dunk with 3:56 remaining to pull the Pistons within two, electrifying the sellout crowd of 21,584, the Pistons went without a basket the rest of the way. The Pistons missed their last six shots and Jackson – who racked up 12 assists, the last one on Caldwell-Pope’s breakaway dunk – committed his only turnover of the game on the other possession.

“What went wrong in the last four minutes is we didn’t make very good plays,” Van Gundy said. “I thought at 95-90, we had a wide-open three in the corner for KCP. I thought Reggie took some tough shots down the stretch. He’s been great in those situations all year. He didn’t have a great night down the stretch, but the guy had 12 assists and one turnover. We didn’t make plays down the stretch. We went to our stuff that we always close with and we just didn’t do a great job.”

The Pistons have had offensive lulls like that one in every game of the series – always in the second half. They’ve averaged 54.7 points in the three first halves, 39.3 in the second halves.

“We just couldn’t get one to go,” Marcus Morris said. “It was unfortunate.”

The Cavs did, though, and every time they really needed one. When Cleveland appeared on the verge of pulling away early in the fourth quarter, going ahead by nine, the Pistons rallied back with a 10-2 run capped by a Harris pull-up jumper with 6:19 to play. Cleveland called timeout and 14 seconds later got a 26-footer from Kyrie Irving, who again led Cleveland with 26 points.

On the possession following Caldwell-Pope’s dunk, J.R. Smith had a late shot-clock triple to make it 95-90.

Those shots, those loose balls that rolled off their fingertips …

“That’s the way it rolls sometimes,” Morris said. “I wish we could have those plays back, but we can’t.”