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Too many hurdles for Pistons to clear as Toronto pulls away in 4th, wins 11th straight

TORONTO – The takeaway from the weekend 1-2 punch of Cleveland and Toronto: Giving good teams easy points is a bad idea.

The Pistons have been consistently solid in limiting the most efficient ways teams score for most of the NBA season. They don’t give up many 3-point attempts, for example. In fact, only San Antonio has given up fewer. And they don’t send teams to the foul line very often, only four teams stingier at allowing free throws.

But that last number took a hit over the weekend against the top two teams in the East. Cleveland shot 29 (and made 27) and Toronto nearly matched that in just three quarters, finishing with 47 attempts and outscoring the Pistons by 15 points at the line.

It also didn’t help that the Pistons, the No. 1 rebounding team in the league by percentage, were outrebounded by eight by Cleveland and Toronto by five. Or that the 3-point shot so instrumental to their success – they’re 19-3 when they make at least 33 percent – betrayed them both nights, the Pistons going 7 of 23 against the Cavs and 9 of 29 against the Raptors.

“A lot of free throws. A lot of fouls – a lot of dumb fouls,” lamented Brandon Jennings, the bright light for the Pistons with a season-high 22 points and more than half of the team’s 3-point makes on a 5 of 11 performance. “They were just living at the line all night.”

“Huge. It starts with not being able to contain people off the dribble,” Stan Van Gundy said after the 111-107 loss in which the Pistons trailed by two with four minutes left in the third quarter and by 20 with six minutes left in the game before outscoring Toronto 29-13 down the stretch. “But we’re just fouling too much and it’s something we haven’t done all year. Then the Denver game (Jan. 23), last night, tonight – way too many free-throw attempts. We gave a lot of fouls at the end, but still, they’re in the 30s and that’s way too many.”

Some of that, of course, has to be attributed to the quality of the competition. Cleveland and Toronto have separated themselves atop the Eastern Conference for a reason – and it starts with the scoring and playmaking skills of players like LeBron James and Kyrie Irving for the Cavaliers and All-Stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan for Toronto. Throw free-agent acquisition Corey Joseph onto Toronto’s pile, as well. The three of them took 27 foul shots alone and combined for 63 points.

“I think we just gave them too many times where, in pick and rolls, we got Corey Joseph splitting our defense and getting into the interior too much,” Stanley Johnson said. “We got too many guys getting easy buckets, as in leaking out and having transition buckets and open threes.”

“That’s where most of their scoring comes from and we knew that coming in,” Jennings said. “It was our job to try to contain those guys. DeRozan (29 points), he had a great game. Kyle and Joseph, they definitely hit you with a whole lot tonight.”

The Pistons were clearly a tired team, playing their third game in four nights after last week’s four-game Western road swing. They also tipped off an hour earlier than Friday’s 7:30 p.m. start and had to go without starting power forward Ersan Ilyasova, who felt a pull in his groin muscle last night and woke up too stiff to test it. That made a starter out of Anthony Tolliver – only the second time in 48 games the Pistons have had to alter their preferred lineup – and moved Darrun Hilliard into the rotation as the ninth man.

“It was different,” Tolliver said, “but I think that it’s a part of this league. You have to be ready whenever your number is called, no matter what the situation may be. I didn’t make shots at the rate I would like to; neither did our team. We really didn’t shoot very well tonight besides a couple of guys. We just went out there and played hard, myself and everybody that got a chance, like Darrun. He went out there and played hard and that’s all you can really ask.”

As for those rebounding totals, Van Gundy had a pretty simple insight.

“It starts with Andre’s not dominating on the boards. He’s just not,” Van Gundy said of Andre Drummond, who fouled out – picking up six fouls in 11 second-half minutes – with 11 points and 12 rebounds. “He had eight last night. He’s not dominating on the boards.

“We need him to rebound. He’s averaging 15, but lately those numbers are way down. His focus – everybody else’s focus – has gone to free-throw shooting instead of to the fact that he needs to be a dominant rebounder. I don’t think his head’s where it needs to be right now. He had 12 tonight. It’s not good enough. Like anybody, to overcome whatever your weaknesses are, you’ve got to be great in a certain area. So if you’re going to go 1 for 9 at the free-throw line, 12 rebounds is not enough. Go 8 for 9, 12 rebounds is enough.”

The Pistons just had too many weaknesses – too many fouls, not enough rebounds, too few 3-pointers falling – to overcome on a night they had too many hurdles in front of them.