February 19, 2014 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Instead of playing with urgency, Pistons turn in tepid performance

Auburn Hills — John Loyer turned on his heel at midcourt and shuffled toward the Pistons’ bench, asking out loud to no one in particular, “Five straight hoops, right?”

Right.

Soon it was six, though. And by the time his team had its first defensive stop of the game — after a dozen Charlotte possessions — the first quarter was more than half gone.

The game was too, as it turned out, a 108-96 loss. Maybe the Pistons’ playoff aspirations as well, not that this one really felt like there was much on the line at The Palace, regardless of what the Eastern Conference standings suggested or Pistons ownership has demanded.

If this was a game the Pistons had to have, they gave it away far too easily, leaving their interim coach shaking his head much like his predecessor did on too many nights.

Loyer called his team’s start “very disappointing,” which was probably an understatement.

“Especially a game against somebody that we’re fighting with (to get) in the playoffs,” he added. “I just thought our energy level, our concentration, would’ve been better. I mean, there’s no reason to think that it wasn’t gonna be.”

Pretenders, not contenders

Well, I can think of a few reasons. Anybody who has watched this team the past few seasons can. And calling the Pistons playoff contenders requires more than a little pretending, doesn’t it?

But coming off the All-Star break, and beginning a back-to-back with Bobcats — the team they trailed by a half-game for the eighth spot in the East — on their home court, even a cynic might expect something more than this.

The Pistons were outhustled early, overmatched inside and underwhelming in the clutch, unable to cut what was a double-digit deficit for most of the night despite Charlotte’s charity in the fourth quarter.

“Our energy level didn’t match theirs,” said Loyer, whose team lost its second straight since winning his debut against San Antonio following the Maurice Cheeks firing. “You come out and you give a team however many they made in a row to start the game — it puts you in a hole.”

It does, and it doesn’t say a whole lot about what’s left for this team, does it?

Maybe they’ll rebound with a better effort tonight in Charlotte. (The Bobcats haven’t fared well in back-to-backs this winter.) And it’s not as if Michael Jordan’s team is going to run away and hide.

These two teams have played relatively easy schedules to this point, but the road gets considerably tougher from here for both. After Detroit’s visit, Charlotte hits the road for a three-game trip to San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Miami.

But the Bobcats are now 1½ games up and assured of a tiebreaker edge over the Pistons, winning the first two of this season’s three meetings. Meanwhile, Loyer’s team faces the toughest schedule in the East after the All-Star break. The upcoming three-game home stand includes games against a couple of playoff teams from the West — Dallas and Golden State — and then the Pistons play 16 of their final 25 games on the road.

All of which makes these last two losses — they blew another fourth-quarter lead last week at home to Cleveland, which has now won five in a row — all the more distressing.

“These are critical games for us,” Will Bynum said. “Every game is a playoff game, and we can’t give up games like this or we’ll find ourselves on the outside looking in.”

That’s where they are now, and it’s easy to see why.

Bad defense, shot selection

A couple of minutes before that first defensive stop Tuesday, Loyer had called a timeout with his team trailing by seven. Seemed like a good idea at the time. But on the ensuing possession, Josh Smith, on his way to a 5-for-17 shooting night, promptly launched — and missed — a long two-point attempt with 12 seconds on the shot clock.

The Bobcats ended up shooting 64 percent from the field in the first quarter and 52 percent for the game. They easily poked holes in the Pistons’ perimeter defense and got another monster night from Al Jefferson, who finished with 32 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists.

“We talked about not letting them connect the dots and pass it where they want to throw it,” Loyer said. “And they pretty much threw it where they wanted to throw it.”

Now we’ll see if the Pistons decide to throw in the towel, I guess, with the trade deadline looming. Rodney Stuckey sure played like he’d rather be elsewhere Tuesday — 1-for-11 in 17-plus minutes — but I’m guessing his expiring contract is worth more than whatever he’d bring in a trade. And I’m guessing the Pistons’ management, wherever it is, will decide to ride this out with what it has.

But what is that, exactly? Stuckey, one of the few Pistons still in the locker room when most of the media entered after the game, declined to stop for an interview.

“We lost,” he said, shrugging, as he exited.

And not much more needed to be said, really.

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Pistons' Greg Monroe loses control of the ball in the first quarter, which summed up the team's night in a 108-96 loss to the Bobcats Tuesday at The Palace. / Clarence Tabb Jr / Detroit News