Charlotte, N.C. — One-third of the season remains for the Pistons, and the postseason is looking more and more like a mirage.
The team directly ahead of them, the Charlotte Bobcats, took two games in two days, and the separation is now 2.5 games as the Pistons put forth another effort suitable for framing — if they want to be bad enough to keep their top-eight protected pick in the NBA draft.
The Bobcats again played with the energy and urgency of a team that has visions on improvement and the Pistons easily acquiesced Wednesday, falling 116-98 at Time Warner Cable Arena.
And with the trade deadline Thursday afternoon, it seems unlikely the cavalry is coming to save the day. It appears this will be the roster that will finish out the season — a group that didn’t show the will to compete for anything longer than short spurts in both halves.
“Every NBA team is delicate. One little thing turns you for the positive, one turns you for the negative,” interim coach John Loyer said. “The teams that handle those adversities the best win. The teams that don’t, don’t come out on the winning side.”
Al Jefferson didn’t put on a flat-out clinic this time, but he didn’t need to despite his 29 points and eight rebounds, as the Pistons didn’t do anything to make him uncomfortable or uneasy. Kemba Walker carved the Pistons’ defense into submission — or ejection, as Brandon Jennings got ran with a little more than one minute remaining.
“I think we’re more frustrated than our confidence being down,” said guard Will Bynum, who scored 14 with eight assists. “We have to give better effort, more focus on the details. Loyer’s doing a great job and at some point we have to look ourselves in the mirror. I’ve been here a long time, a lot of things have changed, but at some point it has to be the people on the court.”
Walker scored 24 and added a career-high 16 assists, helping the Bobcats again shoot over 50 percent from the field, with all five starters scoring in double figures. They also outworked the bigger Pistons on the glass, outrebounding them 49-31.
“Rebounding, most nights, is about effort,” said Greg Monroe, who grabbed seven. “It’s not strategic. We have to take pride in it, night in and night out. Tonight, we didn’t get that done.”
Team rebounding was a bullet point Loyer made clear upon taking over. The message didn’t connect Wednesday.
“I think we have one of the better rebounding teams in the league,” Loyer said. “It has to be a staple for us. Nights where we don’t rebound at a high level, we’ll have outcomes like this.”
Jennings led the Pistons with 20 points and six assists but at the point of attack defensively, ceded too much room and opportunity to Walker and even backup Ramon Sessions, who scored 10 and added 10 assists in 28 minutes.
The Bobcats again got off to a great start, one players and coaches said was a chief reason the Bobcats emerged with a win at The Palace on Tuesday night. The Pistons’ main guns, Monroe and Josh Smith, combined to miss their first 14 shot attempts before Smith got a fast-break dunk in the second quarter.
“If you look at the tape, we got it to the rim, we weren’t aggressive enough as a group of finishing,” Loyer said. “We didn’t finish.”
Kyle Singler’s shooting kept them in it early, although relying on a player who depends on others to get his shots is often a proposition that results in disaster — and the Pistons didn’t disappoint in that regard.
The Bobcats turned a seven-point halftime lead to 20 in the third quarter, and it became clear they wouldn’t be able to climb uphill against a team they should’ve been highly motivated to compete against.
But as Jennings showed upon his exit — you wonder if this team has “implosion” written over it with 28 games remaining.
“As a team, players, we have to raise our urgency higher,” Monroe said. “We want to make a push for the playoffs, it starts now. Guys understand that. We have to come out and play.”