Pistons lose a squeaker that might have been decided early in the second quarter

DALLAS – It was anybody’s game with five minutes to play, a script that applies to more than half of NBA games. But the Pistons lost this one as much in the first five minutes of the second quarter as those final five minutes when their offense ground to a halt.

Dwane Casey wants to keep Blake Griffin’s minutes to no more than 16 in the first half, which means if he plays the whole first quarter he should sit for the first eight of the second. But Casey had to wave Griffin back after less than a five-minute rest to start Friday’s second quarter. While he sat for just 4:20, a five-point Pistons lead became a six-point deficit.

“I wish I could play Blake and Andre (Drummond) and those guys 48 minutes, but we can’t,” Casey said after the 106-101 loss to Dallas. “We’ve got to get some production out of our bench. I thought Stanley (Johnson) competed defensively down the stretch, but that lull in the second quarter breaks your back when we have to rest our starters.”

Griffin scored 35 points, but only two came in the fourth quarter. He wound up playing 40 minutes and you’re left to wonder how much of his three-point quarter – he shot 1 of 3 and missed his only two free throws, re-entering the game at 8:12 – was simply fatigue taking its toll.

Luke Kennard’s triple had just tied the game at 92 as the bench played better to start the fourth quarter – mostly because they held Dallas to just four points in those four minutes after ceding 20 in five minutes to start the second quarter. But points at their end came just as grudgingly. The bench scored a total of 15 points, making 4 of 21 shots.

In fact, Pistons not named Griffin or Drummond shot only 31 percent. While Griffin (12 of 24) and Drummond (9 of 16) combined to make 21 baskets, everybody else combined to make just 14.

“I think we just missed a lot of good, open shots,” said Drummond, who returned after missing three games while in concussion protocol and finished with 23 points and 15 rebounds in 38 minutes. “You can’t control that. We missed and they made theirs. That’s kind of what it boiled down to.”

One basket Drummond made with 5:54 to go – pulling the Pistons within a point – was taken away more than two minutes later when during a timeout they reviewed and ruled his put-back came after the 24-second shot clock expired. The timeout came after Dallas got a Maxi Kleber transition triple off of a Pistons turnover and that basket, coupled with the erasure of Drummond’s hoop, suddenly gave the Mavs a five-point lead.

They got it back to three, but no closer. Mavs rookie Luka Doncic – who finished with 32 points, eight rebounds and eight assists – provided the dagger with a pretty turnaround jumper over Johnson with 1:20 to go for a seven-point lead.

Johnson had the most success guarding Doncic, which explains why he guarded him down the stretch after Casey opened with Bruce Brown against him, then gave shots to Langston Galloway, Khyri Thomas and Reggie Bullock. But Johnson, like all of Casey’s second unit, struggled to put anything in the basket, shooting 0 of 6.

“We had a really good start,” said Zaza Pachulia, anchor of a second unit that badly misses Ish Smith’s speed and playmaking. “Blake had an amazing start. Second unit could have done a better job. We kind of gave them life and put them back in the game. We’ve got to understand, everybody’s needed. We can’t ask starters to play 48 minutes. Most of the season, bench has been great. The first half, second unit didn’t respond as well.”

The Pistons shot 4 of 17 in the fourth quarter – the bench 1 of 8, getting only Kennard’s tying triple, and the beleaguered starters 3 of 9. Reggie Jackson had 12 points and a season-high nine assists through three quarters, then zeroes in the fourth, missing his only two shots. He, too, played heavier minutes (35) than accustomed.

Casey lamented a few misjudgments down the stretch while acknowledging that it was at least as much about the second-quarter stretch and the need to rush his horses back in the game too soon as anything.

“What’s my alternative?” he asked rhetorically. “You give me an alternative, I promise you I’ll use it. I didn’t want to (play Griffin 20 minutes of the first half). I’m searching. Blake, he’s giving it all to us. Andre rebounded his butt off. But we’ve just got to have some other people.”