Auburn Hills — As the weather turns colder and the nights get longer, Stan Van Gundy's frustration grows with his inability to help his team get over the hump.
The growing pains keep coming for a Pistons team that gave a game effort Wednesday night against a Western Conference contender. The fourth quarter told a familiar story: another loss for the second-worst team in the Eastern Conference.
Chris Paul and Jamal Crawford took turns revving up the Los Angeles Clippers' offense in the second half, as their experience overpowered the Pistons' youth and borderline desperation for a 104-98 victory at The Palace.
It evoked a strange emotion from Van Gundy: empathy.
"I haven't been at this point before. It's hard," Van Gundy said. "We've had a lot of these: competitive, close enough, couldn't get it done. It starts to get frustrating from a coaching standpoint. Obviously I want to win badly for selfish reasons but I want them to win, too."
The eighth loss in nine games overshadowed Andre Drummond doing the things that made Van Gundy want to take this job last summer, and Spencer Dinwiddie's substantial contributions in his most extensive appearance to date.
Paul was nearly flawless in the second half, scoring 17 of his 23 points, including a backbreaking 3-pointer when he had Dinwiddie in an impossible position.
Dinwiddie was staring at Paul on the wing, with the hot-shooting Crawford open in the corner with 1:48 left.
Paul faked the pass. Dinwiddie bit.
And Paul delivered the crowd-quieting 3-pointer to put the Clippers up seven.
Then, after Crawford stripped Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on a 3-point attempt, the riverboat-gambling shooting guard with unlimited range found himself 30 feet from the basket with the shot clock running down.
Dinwiddie, who played 17 impressive minutes, gave Crawford just a hair of airspace, which is too much for a hot player. Crawford (25 points) shot one of his many playful looks to the Pistons bench after his 3-pointer fell with 58 seconds left.
"When he has the ball with his left hand, you play the percentages," Dinwiddie said. "He hit a great shot. It wasn't like I could really close out on him because he would've drove right by me."
The Clippers had their highest-scoring quarter when it counted most, after trailing by one after three quarters.
"We couldn't stop them. Those two guys went off on us in the fourth and we couldn't get shots," Van Gundy said. "They made plays. Again, I'm at a loss to find stuff we can do to find better shots."
Getting the Pistons team to compete hasn't been as difficult as getting them to execute. Wednesday they had to do it without Brandon Jennings, who missed his second straight game with a sprained left thumb.
Dinwiddie and starter D.J. Augustin looked like a different duo compared to the turnover-riddled pair they were the night before in Milwaukee. Augustin scored a team-high 19 with six assists while Dinwiddie scored 10, including some impressive drives to the basket when the Clippers were threatening to run away late.
"I thought they played very well tonight, I really did," Van Gundy said. "I thought both those guys played extremely well … and hard."
It wasn't that the Pistons folded under pressure; they clawed their way back into the game after trailing by 11 with 4:16 left, pulling to 93-91 with 2:39 left. They took advantage of a Clippers team that appeared to sleepwalk through the first half, as the Pistons took a 10-point lead.
Drummond again looked like himself, playing with energy on the defensive end and converting it to easy baskets. On consecutive possessions, he stole an inbounds pass, going all the way for an uncontested dunk, followed by Josh Smith stepping in the passing lane and getting a dunk of his own.
Drummond outplayed his counterpart, DeAndre Jordan, scoring 17, adding 13 rebounds, two steals and two blocked shots in 38 minutes. Josh Smith and Greg Monroe helped keep Blake Griffin in check, as Griffin missed 11 of his 17 shots. The Clippers shot just 40 percent in the first half.
But when the focus of the Clippers offense shifted to Paul, the fortunes changed for a team challenging for Western Conference supremacy.