February 27, 2014 at 10:15 pm

Vincent Goodwill

Pistons' effort better under John Loyer, but bad losses will haunt them

Greg Monroe makes a point with Pistons coach John Loyer. (Duane Burleson / Associated Press)

Houston — The Pistons head into their brutal March schedule with three straight losses — though competitive ones — to Western Conference playoff opponents. They’ll play Houston Saturday, another hot team, in an effort to end their skid.

News: The players all insist the effort has been better since owner Tom Gores fired head coach Maurice Cheeks on Feb. 9, despite their 2-6 record under interim coach John Loyer.

Views: This is what comes with playing better competition, particularly in their last three losses — to Dallas, Golden State and San Antonio. The effort has been there, the execution has been there for the most part — and they’ve been effective enough to stay in or lead games the past couple weeks.

But this is where some of the inexcusable losses will come back to bite them in the behind. There’s no shame in losing to the Spurs on their home floor, or even losing to Golden State when its underrated defense clamped down on the Pistons in the fourth quarter.

If you want to trace why the Pistons are 3.5 games out the playoffs, look no further than three losses in particular in the last month or so:

* A 104-101 loss Jan. 22 to the Milwaukee Bucks, a team with only 11 wins to their name, aided by the gift the Pistons gave them in that fourth quarter.

* Another loss two nights later to the New Orleans Pelicans, when the Pelicans took a lead with 1.2 seconds left after yet another late collapse and the Pistons failed to call a timeout to give themselves a chance to tie or win.

* Finally, the 112-98 road loss to the rebuilding Orlando Magic on Feb. 5, when the Pistons failed to show up.

Winning those three games alone — never mind countless others this season — puts this team firmly in the picture, instead of hoping for a near-miracle in the final 24 games.

News: Will Bynum played nearly the entire second half of Wednesday’s game against San Antonio in place of Brandon Jennings, who had a sore toe. Bynum connected with Andre Drummond for multiple alley-oops, reminiscent of last season.

Views: For whatever reason, Cheeks was hesitant, almost stubborn, to use that effective combination that was discovered nearly by happenstance from former coach Lawrence Frank. Jennings and Drummond haven’t yet developed the chemistry Bynum has with the athletic big man, and Bynum didn’t see a lot of time with Drummond. Perhaps Cheeks felt it was stifling ball movement.

But that duo should’ve been utilized more — although giving Cheeks only 58 games to figure everything out was certainly not the easiest task in the world.

Considering the Pistons lack shooting and their most productive stretch last season was anchored by those two — along with Charlie Villanueva and Austin Daye stretching the floor — it’s obvious Loyer doesn’t have confidence in the “shooters” on the roster.

Gigi Datome hasn’t shown much when given a chance (18 percent 3-point shooting), Villanueva hasn’t been given much of a shot (14 games) and Chauncey Billups is injured — and 37 years old.

Loyer probably feels like he doesn’t have many options.

News: Speaking a 3-point shooters, Josh Smith kept the Pistons in Wednesday’s game with 20 points, five rebounds, five assists, two blocks and two steals — in the game’s first 17 minutes.

Views: That was the best of Smith—stepping in the passing lanes, setting up open teammates with unselfish passing, generally being everywhere on the floor on both ends — and yes, making jumpers.

His production has actually risen every month since the start of the season, improving in scoring, rebounding, assists and field-goal percentage each month. In February, he’s averaging 18.9 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks while shooting 45 percent from the field.

Why does he take threes? Because there’s not enough space all the time on the interior for Smith, Greg Monroe and Drummond to have at once. Three-point attempts in the flow of the game is what defenses will give Smith and at times he has to take them.

In November, Smith took 4.5 threes per game. Now he’s down to 2.7 this month and trying to keep the questionable decision-making to a minimum.