Loss to Pacers signals trouble for Pistons

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
Pacers guard George Hill defends Pistons guard Reggie Jackson during the first half.

Pistons coach Stan Gundy has been sour on his team’s lack of a full-game effort in recent weeks, in which they’ve consistently dug a double-digit hole and had to muster a comeback, only to fall short.

They’ve had their share of surges — but have also had their share of clunkers.

Saturday’s matchup against the Indiana Pacers was another Groundhog Day exercise. The Pistons trailed by 20 midway through the third quarter, replete with a defensive malaise in the first half that matched any poor stretch they’ve had this season.

By the end of the third period, the Pistons had trimmed the lead to six and were within striking distance. That made for a competitive fourth quarter, but the Pacers regained control and held on for a 112-104 victory on Saturday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

BOX SCORE: Pacers 112, Pistons 104

“We weren’t ready to play and we didn’t compete on the defensive end of the floor,” Van Gundy lamented in his postgame comments to reporters.

“I thought we played hard for about a quarter and a half tonight — that’s not going to get it done. Our five starters, not one of them came into the game and played hard to start the game.”

Paul George had 30 points and eight rebounds for the Pacers (27-24), who shot 75 percent from the field in the first quarter — the second-best opening period by any team in the NBA this season — en route to a 34-22 advantage.

Without their defensive stopper, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (core muscle strain), the Pistons struggled to put together a complete effort. They’ll be without Caldwell-Pope at least for the three games before the All-Star break and they’re at a sink-or-swim portion of their schedule.

It could be the difference between the Pistons making the playoffs or just being on the outside looking in — for the seventh straight season.

It’s a critical loss for the Pistons (27-25), who lost the season series, 3-1, to the Pacers, who move a half-game ahead in the Eastern Conference standings.

Pistons forward Marcus Morris summed it up best, when asked about the defensive lapses: “We get down by 20 really often, so we’re always fighting from behind. We just have to get better. We’ve had meeting after meeting,” he said in a postgame interview on Fox Sports Detroit. “It’s either we want to be a playoff team or we don’t.”

The Pistons are 0-2 against the two opponents left before the All-Star break, (Raptors and Nuggets), with both games at The Palace. If they drop both games, they’ll go into the break at .500, which would be a disappointing limp to the break, following the encouraging first half of the season.

Reggie Jackson had 26 points and Anthony Tolliver was a catalyst off the bench with 17 points, including five 3-pointers. Rookie Stanley Johnson, in his second straight start, had 14 points and 10 rebounds.

The Pistons got within 102-97 on a basket by Marcus Morris (16 points), and they got a defensive stop, but Andre Drummond (10 points, 13 rebounds) split a pair of free throws. Drummond also had an opportunity to cut it to three a minute earlier, but missed both chances.

Van Gundy, though, wasn’t worried about scoring enough points — it was how many they gave up.

“The offense wasn’t a problem — we didn’t have a problem getting shots. We shot the ball pretty decently, except at the free-throw line,” he said. “We’re a horrible free-throw shooting team — not just Andre — it’s everybody.

“Other than that, offensively, we were fine. We just didn’t defend and we didn’t rebound. That’s what happens.”

It’s not a time to just throw their hands up and wait for something good to happen. The Pistons have been through periods this season when they’ve questioned their leadership and effort — not just in the locker room, but on the court as well — and they’ve bounced back somewhat.

Now they’re back at Square One.

It’s not over yet, but if the Pistons don’t put a focus on improving the defense — and get it done — they’ll be on the outside looking in yet again.