Atlanta — Once was a surprise. Twice was asking too much.
The Pistons opened the season with a surprising road victory at Atlanta, part of their impressive 5-1 start to a turnaround season.
In their return trip, the Pistons couldn’t repeat the feat — especially without playing good defense.
The Hawks used a second-quarter run to build a double-digit lead and they cruised in the second half to a 107-100 win over the Pistons on Wednesday night at Philips Arena.
The loss ends the Pistons’ winning streak at three and was the fifth straight win for the Hawks.
Andre Drummond had his 26th double-double in 30 games, with 25 points and 12 rebounds, and Marcus Morris added 22 points for the Pistons (17-13).
The Pistons defense was the culprit for the loss, though, as the Hawks scored 61 points in the first half and shot 51 percent (25-of-49).
“We didn’t defend tonight. We did a little bit in the second half, but not enough. We didn’t come with the defensive mentality,” coach Stan Van Gundy said. “It’s going to catch up to us, but they’re not listening right now. They’re trying to do it other ways. Until we get back to defending, we’re going to struggle.”
Van Gundy said it wasn’t just one issue such as communication that was plaguing the team; rather, it’s an all-around breakdown.
“It’s just our pick-and-roll defense is awful — it’s terrible,” he said. “Our bigs are terrible in it and our guards are terrible.”
The Pistons started 4-of-13 from the field, while the Hawks hit 50 percent (6-of-12) and pushed out to a 12-11 lead in the first six minutes. Paul Millsap scored eight of his 18 points in the first period and reserve guard Dennis Schroder was a spark plug off the bench, scoring 11 of his 14 points in the first.
The Hawks started intentionally fouling in the first quarter, hacking Drummond, a poor free-throw shooter, to send him to the line. The ploy had mixed results, as Drummond started 3 of 6 on free throws, but as the game progressed, he struggled, finishing 7-of-18, tying his career high for attempts.
Schroder made a jumper with 26.3 seconds left in the first period to give Atlanta a 27-26 lead. Morris opened the second with a three-point play, but the Hawks’ Kent Bazemore answered with another three-point play.
“We just have to want it and be better. We have to get closer to our men; the problem is we’re too far off so we can’t get into our coverages,” Reggie Jackson said. “It’s an attack-or-be-attacked game and lately we’ve been attacked instead of being the aggressor, so we have to get back to jumping on people.”
Aron Baynes made it three straight trips with three-point plays, for a 32-30 Pistons lead and Baynes added a hook to make it a four-point lead at the 9:57 mark The Hawks pulled ahead to stay, with a 14-4 run that pushed the lead to 48-40 with 3:54 left in the half. After Jackson (19 points, five rebounds, seven assists) hit a floater, the Hawks went on an 11-0 run, with six points from Jeff Teague (23 points) and five from Tiago Splitter (11 points).
Atlanta took a 61-45 halftime lead and the margin didn’t get under double digits until the final minutes of the game.
“It’s everybody — every single guy on the team. We’re not focused on the defensive end of the floor. That’s not where our mind is,” Van Gundy said. “It’s everything. There’s just not anybody playing well on the defensive end of the floor.
“There’s a couple guys making a halfway-decent effort but we’re not getting anything accomplished. At times we are — late in the Miami game last night, we did a good job. We’re certainly capable; it’s just not where our minds are right now.”
The Pistons had an 8-0 run, with two baskets by Morris, that cut the lead to 78-64, but the Hawks kept the pressure on. Al Horford (15 points) hit a 3-pointer early in the fourth quarter to get the lead back to 19 and Stanley Johnson answered with a 3-pointer.
Drummond’s putback dunk at the 10:05 mark cut the lead to 14, but the defense couldn’t get a stop, as the Hawks got a jumper from Horford and a lay-in by Schroder.
The Pistons finally got it down to eight in the final minutes, but the Hawks held on for the victory.
The defensive focus was the most disappointing part of the game for Jackson, who has seen how intense the defense can get in the postseason, a goal he has for the Pistons this year.
“You don’t make it to the playoffs — and you sure don’t make it deep in the playoffs —without defense,” he said. “That’s going to be our identity. I’m happy with the way we’ve been playing offensively and executing and finding rhythm.”
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope sustained a lower-leg strain in the second half and was available to return, though he did not.
“He was OK to come back but he had a little bit of swelling." Van Gundy said. "Had it been a little closer, we probably would have brought him back, but I just didn’t see taking a chance right there.”