Sluggish start, flawed finish as Pistons see desperate Kings snap 9-game losing streak
Chris Schwegler (NBAE via Getty Images)
The Pistons saw their tank hit empty when, playing on a back to back against a rested New Orleans on Wednesday, they were outscored down the stretch. Dwane Casey knew the schedule gave the Pistons a similar advantage on Friday and let his team know about it before they left the locker room at Smoothie King Arena to head home at the end of a weeklong road trip.
So chalk that up as another lesson to absorb for a young team finding its way after the Pistons both failed to jump on a Sacramento team battered by giving up 140 points at New York 24 hours earlier and then failed to close after overcoming an early 17-point deficit.
“I think we continue to get better,” Jerami Grant said after the 110-107 loss to a Kings team that came in on a nine-game losing streak. “We do have mental lapses – like in the first quarter, starting off bad – but I do think we’re getting better. It might now show in the win column right now, but going forward we’re all pretty positive.”
It was the start more than the finish that will linger with Casey.
“Of all the things, that was the most disappointing,” Casey said. “We knew we had a hungry, wounded team coming in. Talking about how we had to play desperate, the energy, keep the pace up, be smart, be focused, and (trailed) 12 to 3 – we didn’t start the game off well. That’s on me.”
“Wasn’t ready to play,” Grant said. “We came out, wasn’t getting stops. We just weren’t ready to play. That’s on us.”
Two areas were especially hurtful to the Pistons, both the sort of thing that drives coaches crazy. They shot free throws inexcusably poorly – other than Grant’s 14 of 15, the Pistons were 7 of 17 – and they failed to secure rebounds after forcing Sacramento misses. The Kings wound up with 14 offensive rebounds and second-chance points (19) accounted for a big chunk of their offense.
“We’ve got to do better on the defensive glass,” Grant said. “We’ve got to box out. We know they’ve got a lot of guys who like to crash. That was part of the game plan. We didn’t handle it like we’re supposed to.”
“In high school, the coaches talk to us about how to box out,” Casey said. “It’s a sign of us not being ready to fight, ready to compete to start the game. A team, losing, on the road, they’re going to give you their best shot. I thought we did a heck of a job fighting to get back in and go up and then we allowed them to go back ahead with some of our missed switches, mistakes, attention-to-detail things down the stretch.”
Grant finished with 30 points and had his streak of 21 consecutive free throws made snapped with a minute left and the Pistons trailing by two points. That set up a wild final minute that saw the Pistons intentionally miss free throws twice – Josh Jackson with 12 seconds left and the Pistons down two, Dennis Smith with eight seconds left and the deficit still at two.
Casey blamed poor communication for the decision to intentionally miss the free throws. It wasn’t a call that came from the bench, he said.
Included in that last minute was a successful challenge by Casey that wiped out Buddy Hield’s tip-in that would have meant a four-point Sacramento lead and Hield going to the line. Instead, Hield was called for going over Jackson’s back to give him the opportunity to tie the game at the line.
Other than Grant’s 30-point night, the Pistons got a third straight impressive game from the recently acquired Smith. He was part of the sluggish start and was yanked after five minutes, but finished with 17 points, six assists and zero turnovers in 27 minutes, scoring 11 to spark a third-quarter surge.
“He had a good game,” Casey said. “The other night it was Saben (Lee) and tonight it was Dennis Smith. I thought Dennis did a heck of a job of running the show, getting into the paint and causing problems. Between those two, we’ve had good play out of our point guards.”
Saddiq Bey hit 5 of 9 from the 3-point arc to match Smith’s 17 points and Isaiah Stewart had six points and 11 rebounds in 21 minutes.
But the loss stung a little more than most because of the squandered opportunity.
“I take responsibility for that, for the guys not being prepared, ready to come out and play,” Casey said. “Because it’s the league. Everybody’s going to come in and try to put their foot on our throat.”