New York — All it took was two possessions to understand why Josh Smith is so frustratingly good but so frustrating at the same time.
Smith chased Carmelo Anthony around all night, and forced Anthony into a charging foul as Smith got in front of him with 27 seconds left, giving the Pistons a chance to complete an improbable comeback.
Then the head-scratcher immediately followed with nine seconds remaining — as Smith admitted he would love to have back — as he sent a 17-foot jumper that only went 15 feet toward the basket. His regrettable airball overshadowed a furious late rally that saw the Pistons fall to the New York Knicks, 89-85, Tuesday at Madison Square Garden.
The loss was the Pistons’ fifth straight, with two games remaining on their three-game swing.
Anthony led the Knicks with 34 points, four rebounds and four steals while Smith had 21 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and eight turnovers — which could’ve been nine if one wants to count that disastrous possession.
It left Pistons veteran Chauncey Billups shaking his head in frustration, one of many long faces on the sideline.
Whether the Pistons should’ve taken their final timeout during that crucial moment will certainly be up for debate. But Smith knows he should’ve been moving toward the basket as opposed to taking a jump shot that didn’t look good from the moment it left his hands.
“I’m still beating myself up because I could’ve took the initiative on the refs to make the call,” Smith said. “It’s a shot that will be with me until the next game, so I can’t get it out of my head. I’m still trying to be relentless and aggressive, it was one possession less aggressive and I should’ve been most aggressive.”
Pistons coach Maurice Cheeks had visions on using that timeout with Raymond Felton on the line, if his three big men could corral a defensive rebound after his second miss, but none of them came up with it, as Anthony recovered the ball with four seconds left, sealing the Pistons’ fifth straight loss.
“I thought I would need it again and I did,” said Cheeks of his saved timeout. “Had we got the rebound, it would’ve been even bigger.”
He trusted the setup of Smith and Brandon Jennings, who ran the set Cheeks called from the sidelines during the stoppage after Anthony’s offensive foul.
“They ran a play I had in mind. I would’ve liked to see him drive it; he didn’t drive it,” Cheeks said. “I trust the shot he took and it didn’t go in and you live with it.”
It was an unsatisfying finish after a furious comeback, an unexpected one where the Pistons looked listless and lifeless in a third quarter that saw them generously give the ball away to the Knicks seven times, on the way to getting outscored 32-17.
Anthony got cooking, hitting three straight triples, which helped break the game open as the Knicks went on a 15-0 run that most likely decided the game.
The Pistons put themselves in a hole because they couldn’t take advantage of the Knicks missing defensive-minded center Tyson Chandler, replacing him with Andrea Bargnani and Amar’e Stoudemire — two defenders Greg Monroe should’ve had a field day with.
Monroe scored 19 and added seven rebounds, but wasn’t dominant when the Pistons needed him to be, especially considering the Pistons shot just 37 percent from the field and only making three triples.
“They called timeout and went to an 8-0 run, then I called timeout and they scored another seven points right after that,” Cheeks said. “That was the difference.”
The Pistons methodically clawed back into it, so much so the Garden crowd barely noticed. Will Bynum was productive while Jennings and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope were quiet, along with Cheeks turning to Charlie Villanueva in the fourth, sparking an energetic comeback.
When Kyle Singler hit a corner triple with 3:20 left, cutting the Knicks’ lead to three, the Pistons had the Knicks’ full attention.
After a stop, Jennings got too cute with the basketball and was forced into a shot clock violation.
He later threw the ball ahead to Andre Drummond on a fast break when he would’ve been better served keeping it, as Drummond got fouled when defenders caught up to him. He made one of two when the Pistons could’ve easily converted that for a layup.
Drummond finished with 12 points, 17 rebounds and a blocked shot, but rushed a putback with 47 seconds left that could’ve tied the game, perhaps fearing being fouled.
But despite finally giving an opponent a scare in the fourth quarter after being on the opposite end for so long, they couldn’t complete it — giving very little solace on their trip to Toronto.