This year's Detroit Pistons team has proven that no lead is too large to overcome, but down 22 points in the second half was too much on Wednesday night, as the Atlanta Hawks clung on to a 107-100 win over their visitors from the North. Jeff Teague led the Hawks with 23 points and 9 assists while Paul Milsap chipped in with 18 points. For the Pistons, Andre Drummond recorded another double-double with 25 and 12; Marcus Morris scored 22 and Reggie Jackson netted 19.
The Hawks used a second quarter surge to build a double-digit lead thanks in large part to the hack-a-Dre strategy and subsequent poor defense. Drummond finished 2-6 from the line in the quarter, but more importantly, it directly led to the Pistons' big man finding a seat on the bench. The Hawks pounced on the opportunity to attack the Drummond-less Pistons and outscored Detroit 34-19 in the 2nd stanza, taking a 16-point lead into halftime.
Marcus Morris scored 12 points in the third quarter to keep the game within a reasonable striking distance and a too little, too late run in the fourth made the final score closer than than it should've been.
Free throw woes
Let's head back to the second quarter as this is when the Hawks took control. The hack-a-Dre started early, with just under 9 minutes remaining, and Drummond found himself on the bench less than 3 minutes later. The Hawks actually started hacking Dre with a little over 2 minutes left in the first quarter. The game plan worked, as the constant stoppage of play slowed the game down and took the Pistons right out of any offensive rhythm they had going. Drummond finished the night 7-18 from the line with most attempts coming from intentional fouls.
Putting bad shooters at the line and making the game a glorified free throw contest sure is ugly to watch, but unfortunately it works. We (as fans) can bitch and moan about the crappy basketball aesthetics, but as long as Andre Drummond continues to be a sub 40% FT shooter, teams are going to make him earn it at the stripe. Why wouldn't they?
Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer started the hack-a-Dre midway through the first quarter and made it painfully obvious he planned on continuing until Detroit countered. The Pistons had no legitimate answer and the Hawks employed the strategy throughout the entire game.
Drummond's achilles heel puts Stan Van Gundy in a less than desirable scenario. The easy answer is: Andre, make your free throws. Yeah, that's not happening any time soon. Plan B is to sub in Aron Baynes, but doing so makes Detroit take one of the most physically imposing players off the court. This entire situation is nothing new to Drummond or SVG but one of them has got to come up with a solution.
Granted, Jeff Teague has been an All-Star and Dennis Schroder is one of the best backups in the league, but they sliced through the Piston defense with little resistance.
Teague and Schroder lived in the paint with most penetration coming off simple pick-and-roll action. Time after time, the Hawk point guards turned the corner off the pick and roll and had a direct path to the lane. There was no contention from Piston bigs and guards did little in the form of recovery. Efficient passing will put pressure on any defense, and giving Teague and Schroder that much room to operate had the Piston defense scrambling all night.
The Hawks front court did their part too. Paul Milsap and Al Horford both have the ability to shoot and put the ball on the floor and did so throughout the night. Horford has extended his range beyond the three point line which made Drummond come out of his defensive comfort zone. As we've seen in the past against shooting bigs such as DeMarcus Cousins and Marc Gasol, hovering above the elbow is the exact spot Drummond doesn't want to be in.
If you're looking for excuses for the lack of defensive intensity, they wouldn't be hard to find. It was the second night of a road back to back and the Pistons didn't leave Miami until Wednesday morning due to the weather issues. One excuse that doesn't work is "they're a young team." Effort should never be an issue and especially not for a young team that doesn't have track record of sustained success.
Morris the play maker?
Marcus Morris owns a unique skill set. He finished the night with 22 points on 9-16 shooting, connecting on both his triple tries. He continues to punish the weaker defenders in the post and scoot past the slower ones but it's another element to his game that could make an impact as the season progresses.
Morris has the ability to grab a rebound and the push the ball up the floor himself, immediately putting pressure on a retreating defense and slotting himself in the role of play maker. Even if the immediate result doesn't foster a bucket, it's still something opponents must take note of.
It comes down to math. Increasing the amount of decisions a defense must make on a possession will directly increase the opportunities for them to screw up. That's exactly what Morris does when he pushes the ball after a defensive rebound. After Jackson, who is Detroit's best play maker on the starting unit? Morris.
Detroit was 5-23 heading into Christmas 2014 and after Wednesday's loss to Atlanta, the Pistons fall to 17-13. That's a huge difference. No one loss is the end of the world, but Drummond's free throw problem and continuing defensive lapses aren't going anywhere. SVG, this is why you get the big bucks.