San Antonio — Just when you think you’re playing even with the machine-like San Antonio Spurs, they engulf you with their proficient offense and suffocating defense.
It didn’t take many Pistons errors for them to fall to the most consistent franchise in this millennium, as the Spurs had a quick third-quarter run that erased a Pistons lead and had them needing a perfect ending they were unable to author; San Antonio prevailed 120-110 Wednesday at the AT&T Center.
Balance and refined offense enabled the Spurs to shake off any rust from their nine-game road trip, shooting 54 percent with nine 3-pointers and making 21 of 22 free throws, as seven guys scored in double figures.
At one point in the fourth quarter, Josh Smith, Will Bynum and Andre Drummond were the game’s three highest scorers — yet the Pistons trailed by 12. Smith finished with 24, Drummond with 16 and 17 rebounds, while Bynum scored 18.
A tie game at 71 midway through the third gave way to the Spurs’ consistency, as the Pistons scored only two field goals the rest of the period — their only drought of the evening — while the Spurs went took a 90-81 lead entering the fourth.
“We put up a good fight, but in order to beat a team like San Antonio, especially on the road, you have to be able to play perfect basketball,” said Smith, who almost played a perfect game in the first half with 20 points, five rebounds, five assists and two steals.
It happened in quick flashes — a 3-pointer early in the shot clock, a back door layup late in the clock after the Pistons played sound defense, followed by Tim Duncan, slipping behind transition defense for a layup and 3-point play.
The one weakness the Pistons had — occasionally not getting all the way back defensively — was exploited by the Spurs as their bigs ran and ran hard for a few layups that can demoralize a team.
“Spots the whole game where they got behind us,” Pistons interim coach John Loyer said. “When we got our defense behind us, we were pretty solid. A little could be fatigue but you have to look behind you. It takes five guys to get back.”
The Pistons played well, but the Spurs go 10 deep, enabling coach Gregg Popovich to mix and match like a Rubik’s cube while Loyer shortened his rotation — one made even shorter when Brandon Jennings missed the second half with a sore toe.
Reserve Marco Belinelli scored 20, including making all four of his triples, while fellow bench players Manu Ginobili (16 points, nine assists), Boris Diaw (12 points, four rebounds) and Patty Mills (11 points) all had good offensive nights, as they shared the ball for 34 assists on their 44 field goals.
“They’re one of the best executing teams in the league,” Loyer said. “They’re one of the top cutting teams in the league. There’s a part in every game where you’re in it (by) three or five points and it goes to 11 before you know it. That’s the mark of a good team.”
Bynum played admirably in Jennings’ stead, with 18 points and nine assists, quarterbacking the Pistons to a six-point lead by exploiting the fact Drummond’s vertical elevator went up a few floors higher than anyone wearing Spurs white — including Duncan.
But before Bynum or the Pistons knew it, the Spurs exerted a push only they can, steadily pulling away from a game Pistons team fighting for its playoff life.
Smith carried the Pistons early, with 20 points, five rebounds and five assists in his first 17 minutes, helping the Pistons take a slim lead in the first half. Kyle Singler made his first five shots before halftime, on his way to a 16-point night.
“Just trying to be aggressive as much as possible, to not think and just go out there and play,” Smith said. “It worked early on for me, and as the game progressed my teammates came along.”
But the Spurs choked the Pistons’ offense off just enough in the second half, leaving the Pistons to wonder if this type of consistency had been in place earlier in the season, if they’d be in a more advantageous playoff position.