Atlanta — The Pistons received a first-hand message in what it'll take to rise another step in the hierarchy of the Eastern Conference, in their 93-82 Monday afternoon matinee loss to the Atlanta Hawks.
It should read: Dominating the glass won't mean much if those extra possessions result in turnovers, bad shots and missed free throws — especially against a team that's won 13 in a row and has 27 wins in its last 29 contests.
The Pistons failed in all three facets, shooting 35 percent, turning the ball over 19 times and making 57 percent of their free throws — with Andre Drummond accounting for nine of the team's 11 misses. It negated Drummond and Greg Monroe dominating the glass, as they combined for 38 of the Pistons' 61 rebounds — and the Pistons outrebounded the Hawks by 19.
The Hawks were expected to show the difference between a team that's lost two games in a month to one that's lost two games in twice that time span, but what ensued was an ugly affair.
Brandon Jennings shot 1-for-10, while Kentavious Caldwell-Pope missed 11 of his 15 shots and Jodie Meeks shot 4-for-11.
"I thought their defense was really good. A big part of it," Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said. "We had some bad shots but a few were trying to beat the shot clock. And I couldn't find anything for us to run that was consistently getting us shots. It was frustrating. I give their defense a lot of credit."
Keeping Jennings in check and containing the Pistons' pick-and-roll appeared to be objective No. 1 for the Hawks, and they passed with flying colors.
"I couldn't find an open shot tonight; you don't find many bigs that can move like that. They didn't go for anything," Jennings said. "I feel like we had a lot of good look. We just didn't knock them down. It happens."
Unlikely heroes emerge during the playoffs and the mild-mannered Hawks have them in spades, in addition to a few guys who are strong candidates for the All-Star team — Paul Millsap, Al Horford, Kyle Korver and Jeff Teague.
Millsap scored 20 while Horford scored 14 with seven assists and six rebounds.
Hawks reserve Mike Scott scored a quick eight to start the fourth quarter, negating the Pistons' mini-streak where they stopped giving the ball to the other team or throwing it in the stands.
"Scott hurt us and Millsap hurt us," said Van Gundy, as the Pistons' main defensive goals were accomplished, by way of keeping Teague out of the paint and preventing Korver from having a potpourri of open looks.
Van Gundy sounded perplexed about what to do defensively, as the Hawks present a "pick-your-poison, you're going to lose anyways" offense — and was less disappointed with this loss than he was last Wednesday against New Orleans.
"I thought we did a reasonably good job of what we wanted to do, but what we opened up was some of those big guys," Van Gundy said. "To take those guys out, you open up other stuff. They're very, very good."
Two empty possessions midway through the fourth enabled the Hawks to stretch their lead to nine after a Kent Bazemore corner triple — and the Pistons couldn't muster a considerable response.
It was the Hawks' weathering the Pistons' charge in the third quarter, where the Pistons pulled to within 60-59 with 2:33 left before the free-throw shooting began to hurt, with the Hawks intentionally fouling Drummond on the final possessions of the period.
"I thought we played pretty well in the third and maybe be ahead in the fourth," Van Gundy said. "The free-throw shooting, it really rocked us. To come away with nothing three straight times, it's just hard to overcome against a good team."
The Pistons couldn't help themselves, succumbing to a swarming Hawks defense that doesn't rely on a rim-protecting shot-blocker. Monroe committed six turnovers while D.J. Augustin and Jennings had three each, big reasons why the offense looked so disjointed and out of place.
"They can switch a little more. It's a few reasons why they're so good defensively," Monroe said. "We had some looks that are the kind of shots we normally make. It was a little bit of them, a little bit of us."
They kept the Hawks from running away and hiding while they searched for a rhythm that wasn't easy to find. Teague and Korver shot 2-for-13 in the first half. Korver, the feared sharpshooter, didn't make his field goal — a contested corner triple with Caldwell-Pope in his shirt — until there was 1:20 left in the first half and the Pistons had finally taken a short-lived lead.
Keeping the Hawks off the offensive glass was paramount, as Monroe (seven) and Drummond (13) matched the entire Hawks team in rebounding for the first half — and it wasn't until late in the third quarter where the Hawks grabbed an offensive rebound.
"We had chances to take control of the game. When we didn't make shots, they did," Jennings said.
Sometimes it's as simple as that.