Pistons rally back but a turnover, fittingly, costs them the chance to win at Milwaukee

Avery Bradley scored a season-high 28 points as the Pistons rallied from 15 down to tie but fell in the final minute at Milwaukee
Gary Dineen (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

MILWAUKEE – If you want to talk about why the Pistons lost to Milwaukee, you can stop at the turnovers – 18 – and the blocked shots the Bucks amassed, 16.

“That’s the game, right there,” Stan Van Gundy said after the Pistons had their five-game win streak snapped, 99-95. “I mean, that’s 34 opportunities that you don’t even get the ball up on the rim, y’know?”

Or you can talk about the thing that’s probably more relevant for what it means for the long term – for the 68 remaining games in the Pistons season. A team that’s already piled up five comeback wins from double-digit deficits was on the verge of a sixth, this time despite the running-in-quicksand effect on their offense of the vise of a Milwaukee defense.

The Pistons were 15 down late in the third quarter, 13 down entering the fourth. They tied it up twice – on rookie Luke Kennard’s triple with 4:36 to play and Andre Drummond’s free throw with 55 seconds left – but never quite got it over the hump this time.

“That’s expected of us,” Tobias Harris said. “You play the game. You don’t quit. And our team’s not going to quit. We’re going to keep fighting. But there are no moral victories. We’re in the locker room – we should’ve won that game. We expect to win every game that we go out and play. That’s our mentality and we just look to bounce back.”

The loss still leaves the Pistons with a 10-4 record as they entered a stretch of nine road games in their next 11. Milwaukee won its fourth straight game since adding Eric Bledsoe from Phoenix in trade and Bledsoe hit the game winner. After Drummond split a pair of free throws to force the tie, Bledsoe knocked down a mid-range jump shot out of a pick-and-roll set with 42 seconds left.

The Pistons 17th turnover 18 seconds later was the crusher.

Defense was supposed to be Milwaukee’s calling card this season – well, that and the continued and rapid emergence of 22-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo as a superstar. But the Bucks were one of the NBA’s poorest defensive teams through their first 10 games, despite extraordinary length across the board. That size, Van Gundy thought, was the X factor in Wednesday’s game.

“You contrast us getting 16 shots blocked with them being able to make some tough shots on the run. I think a big part of the difference was their size,” he said. “Give them credit. As a front office, that’s what they’ve tried to build and that was really the deciding factor tonight was their length as compared to ours.”

The Pistons actually reduced Antetokounmpo to human form – just as they’d done 12 days ago in a win at Little Caesars Arena – as his overall impact was muted: 21 points, six boards, one assist, three turnovers, though he accounted for four of the 16 blocks, one off Milwaukee’s franchise record. The killer was ex-Piston Khris Middleton, who scored 27 points to go with eight assists.

Avery Bradley led the Pistons with a season-high 28, but also had five of the 18 turnovers – including the critical miscue after Bledsoe put the Bucks ahead by two.

The comeback was fueled by Van Gundy’s bench. Langston Galloway ignited it with nine points in a 1:22 span over three Pistons possessions early in the fourth quarter – back-to-back 3-pointers followed by three free throws when DeAndre Liggins was determined to prevent a third triple. That barrage pulled the Pistons within four.

Kennard added eight fourth-quarter points and Tolliver had six. Ish Smith finished the game, as did Tolliver – guarding Antetokounmpo after splitting the job with Stanley Johnson, returning after a three-game injury absence – and, Van Gundy said, he almost let Kennard play it out over Harris.

“I debated on the Tobias-Luke thing because Luke was going so well. But your leading scorer’s on the bench and you need to score, so I’m not kicking myself too much. But I’m not sure Luke deserved to come out of the game, either.”

“Langston and Luke and A.T. off the bench were huge to get us back in the game and knock down some big shots and before you know it, we looked up and we were tied,” Smith said. “The resilience of this team is unbelievable. It hurts a little bit because we didn’t pull out the win, but that says a lot about our team.”

You know who else thought so? Stan Van Gundy, a guy who usually stares into the abyss after a loss.

“It was a struggle all night and that third quarter was really a struggle,” he said. “But I give our guys credit. They kept fighting. And if we maintain that and improve, we’ve got a chance to be pretty good.”

FAST BREAKDOWN

Three quick observations from Wednesday night’s 99-95 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks at BMO Bradley Center

1-A 3-POINT GAME – When the 3-point shooting turned, so did the game. Then it turned again. Back to the Pistons. Langston Galloway scored nine points in an eye blink, on three possessions, hitting two triples and drawing a three-shot foul he converted, to bring the Pistons back in a hurry from 13 down after three quarters. The Pistons cut it to one point midway through the fourth quarter on another triple, this one from Anthony Tolliver, tied it on a three from Luke Kennard with less than five minutes to play and cut it to one again on another triple, from Avery Bradley, with 1:23 to go. Andre Drummond tied it at the foul line, hitting 1 of 2 with 56 seconds left, but an Eric Bledsoe jump shot put the Bucks ahead and a Pistons turnover – their 17th of the game – took away their last best chance to win it. Success from the arc – a key ingredient in the 5-0 home stand the Pistons just put together – kept them in the game at Milwaukee in a first half in which they shot 33 percent and committed 12 turnovers. They made 8 of 18 triples, though, to Milwaukee’s 3 of 12 and put together a 12-0 run early in the second quarter by holding the Bucks scoreless on nine straight possessions. It was tied at 41 at halftime, but Milwaukee scored 25 points in the first seven minutes of the third quarter to open a 15-point lead as the Bucks hit 4 of 4 from the arc to open the half while the Pistons cooled off, shooting 1 of 6 in the third quarter. The Pistons had made 12 or more triples in four straight games for the second time in franchise history entering the game and they finished 15 of 37. Avery Bradley, who hit 6 of 10 triples, scored a season-high 28 points. The Pistons are on pace to make nearly 900 for the season, which would smash the franchise record of 740 set in the 2015-16 season. The game marked the return of both Stanley Johnson (missed three games) and Jon Leuer (five games) from injury. Johnson started but played just 18 minutes and scored two points.

2-BEEFED-UP BUCKS – That wasn’t the same Milwaukee team the Pistons saw just 12 days ago. The Bucks since then traded for Eric Bledsoe – sending ex-Pistons lottery pick Greg Monroe to Phoenix – and, perhaps not coincidentally, re-emerged as the first-rate defensive team the Bucks first became under Jason Kidd. Through their first 10 games, the Bucks were 4-6 with the league’s No. 29 defense (109.5). In beating the Spurs, Lakers and Grizzlies since then, Milwaukee has been the NBA’s No. 7 defense (96.1), a dramatic turnaround. The Pistons saw a heavy dose of that defense, keeping the Pistons on the perimeter and blocking shots – 10 in the first half alone, 16 for the game – when the Pistons tried to penetrate. Bledsoe hit the game winner and finished with 14 points, six rebounds and eight assists. Ex-Piston Khris Middleton hurt the Pistons most, finishing with 27 points on 12 of 21 shooting.

3-TOLLIVER ASCENDING – With the usual caveat about lineup and rotation moves always being fluid, for now Anthony Tolliver – who began the season in street clothes as the designated inactive player for the season opener – has climbed another rung on the pecking order at power forward. Tobias Harris is the starter and Jon Leuer, who actually spent more time at center before suffering a sprained ankle and missing the previous five games, has been a rotation staple since signing as a free agent in July 2016. But in speaking about his rotation before the Milwaukee game, Stan Van Gundy said, “A.T. and Ish (Smith) are going to pretty much play normal backup minutes. Other than that, I’m just sort of playing it by ear and how the game goes.” Tolliver was first off Van Gundy’s bench, replacing Stanley Johnson to guard Giannis Antetokounmpo midway through the first quarter. He finished with nine points, six in the fourth-quarter comeback, and played 31 minutes. Leuer didn’t play.

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