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Slumping Pistons can't pull out victory over Suns

Vincent Goodwill Jr.
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — Holding the fast-paced Phoenix Suns to 88 points on the road would be a recipe for victory for most Eastern Conference teams, but the Pistons aren't most Eastern Conference teams, and can't seize opportunity when faced with it.

With the Pistons trailing by one, Brandon Jennings' late drive was swatted away by Markieff Morris, falling into the hands of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Caldwell-Pope had the hot hand, having hit back-to-back 3-pointers, but he couldn't make it three straight, and the Pistons lost, 88-86, at the Palace Wednesday, their sixth loss in seven games.

"We're fighting to the end. KCP had a great look," Jennings said. "I told him, you get that look again, shoot it again. We're right there."

Apparently Morris, the Suns forward who got into a slight altercation with Caldwell-Pope in the second quarter, wasn't concerned about losing the game when Caldwell-Pope took the last shot.

"Caldwell-Pope got it and you know he doesn't have any heart so we knew he was going to miss it," Morris said after the game.

Trash talk aside, after shooting just 38 percent against a team not known for defense, the Pistons shouldn't be surprised by the defeat, especially with Andre Drummond and Josh Smith combining for four field goals in 15 attempts.

After Smith was late getting out to Suns forward P.J. Tucker on a 3-point shot, Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy pulled him for the final 16 minutes.

"Guys played better, so you gotta go with what rotation was working at the time," Smith said. "We fought back, we just came up short."

Van Gundy made it a point to commend his team's effort in the last quarter or so, after Smith and Van Gundy had a light disagreement on the defensive strategy on that Tucker 3-pointer.

"We're bad but we turned it up in the last 16-17 minutes of the game," Van Gundy said. "All the guys who played down the stretch put out a great effort. We had great looks, I thought we executed well."

Perhaps emulating the lifeless atmosphere in the Palace — many fans stayed home after the season's first snowfall — the Pistons couldn't find much of a rhythm until the final minutes, when they played with guile and energy.

Jennings and Monroe grinded their way to 19 and 18 points, respectively, with no starter shooting over 50 percent from the field.

Jennings scored 13 in the third, after the Pistons fell behind by nine right after halftime, repeatedly challenging the Suns big men and foregoing his jump shot.

"The game was slipping away from us. I started getting in attack (mode) and tried to get things going, get the energy back on our side," Jennings said. "And it did."

But it couldn't last, as no flow and no shooting did in the Pistons, who now have their third three-game losing streak in 12 games.

Back-to-back 3-pointers from Caldwell-Pope and Jennings breathed some life into the Pistons, cutting the Suns lead to 85-83 with 1:05 left.

The Pistons were never able to find an offensive rhythm, as no starter shot over 50 percent. Greg Monroe scored 18 with 12 rebounds while Jennings led the Pistons with 19 points and seven assists, but it didn't come in the flow — and until a late flurry, the Pistons didn't have the outside shooting to make up for their offensive shortcomings.

Scoring inside was a chore, as the Suns matched the Pistons scoring in the paint, but took 20 fewer attempts from that area, shooting 49 percent.

Back to back 3-pointers from Caldwell-Pope and Jennings woke up a lifeless Pistons team, and after Monroe stripped Suns center Alex Len, they had yet another chance to win a close game.

"We executed down the stretch," Van Gundy said.

Jennings missed a 3-pointer on the ensuing possession, but Jonas Jerebko swooped in to find Caldwell-Pope for a corner 3-pointer with 34.4 seconds left, giving the Pistons a brief one-point lead.

Jerebko's seven points and six rebounds in 21 minutes would have made him a candidate for unsung hero, but the Pistons couldn't turn his production into a victory.

They allowed Suns guard Eric Bledsoe to stroll down the lane for an uncontested layup as Greg Monroe, caught on a switch, was nowhere quick enough to contain and the help defense was nowhere to be found.

"It was too bad they got an easy one to win it. I thought we'd done a decent job of at least stopping layups on pick and rolls, and he blows right by us," Van Gundy said. "That was disappointing."

The Suns' strength is their explosive guards, and the Pistons kept Goran Dragic and Bledsoe relatively in check. Dragic went quiet after a hot start, and the latest addition to their three-headed point guard monster, Isaiah Thomas, was 1 of 9 from the field.

Dragic and Bledsoe combined for 30 points, both shooting six for 11, but the Pistons often cut off their driving lanes with decent help defense.

They couldn't stop Tucker and Gerald Green off the bench from picking up the slack, though, as Tucker scored 16 and Green 12.

"Something has to give," Jennings said.

It sure does.