Beard: Why the Pistons are falling apart in stretch drive

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Orlando, Fla. — The Pistons are in a tailspin, having lost five of their last six games. Since their win over the New York Knicks on March 11 — when they were in seventh place and a game out of sixth in the East — they have fallen precipitously.

With 10 games remaining, their chances are hanging by a slim thread.

How did the Pistons fall so quickly? There is no singular cause; it’s a complicated mosaic of factors.

Poor defense, poor shooting

At the start of the string, the Pistons’ defense endured a red-hot Cavaliers shooting display, hitting their first 10 3-pointers. The Cavs cruised to a 128-96 but it was just the beginning of the Pistons’ problems.

In the six games, the Pistons have averaged just under 93 points — but have given up almost 104. They’re only shooting 41 percent from the field and a putrid 27 percent on 3-pointers. They can’t win with those numbers: in the lone victory, over the hapless Suns, they shot 44 percent overall and 48 percent from beyond the arc. Defensively, they’re allowing teams to shoot 47 percent, including 42 percent on 3-pointers.

Those are all just numbers, but the big takeaway is they’re not stopping anybody and their shots aren’t falling.

That’s a bad combination at one of the worst possible times, when they’ve had some beatable teams.

“Every team hits a rough patch — and sadly enough, ours is happening at the end of the season,” center Andre Drummond said after Wednesday’ night’s loss to the Bulls

Point guard problem

When coach Stan Van Gundy anointed Ish Smith as the starting point guard Wednesday night, he finally pulled the trigger on a move he had pondered for weeks. It might have been too late.

In the six-game span, Reggie Jackson has scored in double figures just twice, averaging 10.2 points and 3.8 assists in 22 minutes. He was coming off one of his best stretches of an up-and-down season, with 20-plus points in three of four games.

Then, he just lost it. The knee (tendinitis) clearly isn’t near 100 percent and he looks lost on both ends of the court. Smith has garnered the majority of the playing time, including the ends of most fourth quarters.

In Smith’s start Wednesday, the offense clicked a little better, but after he got in foul trouble early, things went south quickly again.

Van Gundy wouldn’t commit to keep Smith as the starter, but if Jackson isn’t more productive in his minutes, it’s not going to matter who starts.

Who’s the leader?

They looked to be hitting a nice stride two games before the skid, when Marcus Morris had an expletive-laced tirade during a huddle in the victory over the Cavaliers at The Palace. They turned a 15-point deficit into their most impressive win of the season and followed with the win over the Knicks. The momentum died from there.

Morris’ rant provided a one-time infusion of bravado and energy, but it’s not something that he or anyone else can do multiple times. It could be one of the Pistons’ biggest voids: a veteran who’s been through runs to the playoffs and tough postseason series.

Van Gundy does much of the talking but the leadership mantle needs to come from the locker room. After Wednesday’s loss, the players were saying all the right things about playing better in the last 10 games, but the next step is turning that talk into action — and more importantly, victories.

Slow starts 

Van Gundy has lamented the lack of energy and production from the starting group.

In the six games, the Pistons have led after the first quarter just twice: the win over the Suns (a one-point lead) and against the Nets (a nine-point advantage). The other early deficits: by 18 to the Cavaliers, nine to the Jazz, three to the Raptors and nine to the Bulls.

Pushing Tobias Harris to the starting lineup has helped somewhat, but the defense still has lagged in those outings. Some would point to Jackson as the culprit for the slow starts, but even with Smith, it didn’t change much.

For much of the season, they’ve been a slow-starting team, having to work their way out of deep deficits to pull out wins — or simply fall short in the second half.

Pistons at Magic

Tipoff: Friday, 7 p.m., Amway Center, Orlando

TV/radio: FSD+/105 FM.

Outlook: The Pistons (34-38) have lost five of their last six and have fallen to 10th place in the playoff race with 10 games to go — two of those against the Magic.

rod.beard@detroitnews @detnewsrodbeard