If you merely glanced at the stats, the Detroit Pistons seemed to do a lot of things right Sunday, destroying the Utah Jazz on the boards, especially on the offensive end where they racked up second-chance points in the paint. They limited turnovers and did a good job converting free throws.
But when it mattered the most they let the game slip away, 97-96, snapping a two-game win streak and falling two games under .500 on the eve of a grueling four-game road trip.
How did it go so wrong? Let's start near the end. Detroit took its biggest lead of the game, 75-64, with 4:22 left in the third quarter. But over the remaining 16 minutes and change, the Pistons combined to shoot just 8-for-33 (24.2 percent), missing no fewer than 11 shots within six feet of the basket. It took 12 minutes for the Jazz to pull even, and 14 to take the lead for good.
The Pistons were still in position to win at the buzzer, trailing by one with 4.5 seconds left on the clock — but they failed to execute Stan Van Gundy's designed play to get Greg Monroe the ball, with Brandon Jennings instead settling for a running floater from the free throw line. It hit the back of the rim, and the final horn sounded before the loose ball caromed out of bounds.
"I was the last option,'' Jennings said after the game, according to the Detroit Free Press. "Greg was actually the first option. I was supposed to get it to Greg so Greg could use his left hand and go to the basket, but I got it in my hands and it's a shot I work on every day. It was just off.''
I'm not sure it's fair to blame Jennings — if you watch the replay above, he clearly beat his man and had a relatively clean look over Derrick Favors' (No. 15) outstretched arms. As Favors left Monroe to challenge Jennings, Gordon Hayward (No. 20) switched off Caron Butler in the corner to put a body on him, with Trevor Booker (No. 33) closing fast enough to sandwich Monroe by the time the ball leaves Jennings' hands. There wasn't much of a passing lane for Jennings to find Monroe, who never tried to establish position and didn't have a path toward the basket.
That said, this game never should have been decided by a single play. The reason the Pistons finished with 18 offensive rebounds is because they missed a lot of shots, including 12 out of 19 at the rim.
"Look at how many shots we missed in the paint,'' Van Gundy said after the game, according to the Free Press. "That has become a problem. We're missing a lot of shots in the paint. With all that said the game was winnable. We gave up 19 fast-break points. That's inexcusable. If you're going to do that you're usually going to lose."
"Down the stretch, no execution at either end, coming out of timeouts, not doing what we're supposed to do," he continued, according to the Detroit News. "That's our reason you lose close games. If you get close shots you're supposed to get and miss them, OK. But if you can't run a play coming out a timeout, you deserve to lose."
Jennings scored the final 14 of his game-high 23 points in the third quarter but was replaced by D.J. Augustin to start the fourth. Augustin did little to justify the decision, missing five of six shots in nine minutes. He finished the game with nine points, all but two coming before halftime, on nine shots, adding three assists and a pair of turnovers in 17 minutes. Jennings had five assists and three turnovers.
Van Gundy has previously admittedly to riding the hot hand into the ground, but Sunday he benched it before anyone else could heat up. It's not surprising that he wanted Monroe to take the final shot, though, as Moose was Detroit's only effective weapon down the stretch. He made 4-of-7 shots in the fourth as his teammates went 4-for-22 (18 percent). Monroe finished the game with 19 points, 11 rebounds, two assists and a steal.
Andre Drummond grabbed 18 rebounds, including seven on the offensive end. But he also created rebounds by missing six of 11 shots, all coming inside the paint. After shooting better than 60 percent his first two years in the league, he's down to 45.3 percent in six games this year, and he's made more attempts than he's missed just once. He's too talented to think this will be a longterm trend, but he's been so bad that teams aren't even putting his historically bad free-throw shooting to a test: he tallied just two free throws Sunday for the second consecutive game.
It's not fair to talk about how the Pistons gave this game away without at least recognizing everything that Utah did right — and in particular Gordon Hayward, who scored all 11 of Utah's points in the final five minutes, turning a 91-86 deficit into a 97-96 win for the visitors. The way he finished was reminiscent of Joe Johnson in Detroit's loss to Brooklyn on Nov. 1, but unlike Johnson, who was hot for most of the game, Hayward was shooting just 2-for-9 before taking over. He finished with a team-high 17 points on 5-of-13 shooting.
Trey Burke, the former Michigan Wolverine whom the Pistons passed over to take Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in the 2013 NBA draft, had a rough homecoming, shooting 2-for-8 to finish with seven points and five fouls in 24 minutes. But he earned the win and played no worse than KCP, who scored 11 points on 13 shots for the Pistons in 34 minutes. Check out NBA.com's complete box score for the rest.
Instead of extending their win streak to three and climbing back to .500, the Pistons fell to 2-4 on the season, one day before a four-game road trip in which every opponent appeared in last year's playoffs. But there's no time to dwell on this loss, with the Chicago Bulls on tap Monday evening, followed by the Wizards on Wednesday, Thunder on Friday and Grizzlies on Saturday.