Short-handed Pistons fall to Nuggets

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — The All-Star break couldn’t have come at a better time for the Pistons.

Decimated by injuries, the team was without starters Ersan Ilyasova (illness) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (core muscle strain) as well as reserves Jodie Meeks (right foot), Reggie Bullock (broken nose/surgery) and Spencer Dinwiddie (ankle).

That list grew before tip-off Wednesday when point guard Reggie Jackson missed his first start of the season, a late scratch due to illness.

As a result, the battered Pistons limped into the eight-day layoff with their fourth loss in five games, falling to the Denver Nuggets 103-92 at The Palace.

BOX SCORE: Nuggets 103, Pistons 92

Marcus Morris had 19 points and six assists and Andre Drummond had 15 points and 17 rebounds for the Pistons (27-27), who fell to .500 for the first time since Nov. 30 when they were 9-9.

Brandon Jennings finished with 16 points in his first start since Jan. 24, 2015, when he ruptured his left Achilles tendon against the Milwaukee Bucks. Stanley Johnson added 11 points, Aron Baynes 10 and Anthony Tolliver scored six in his second start in place of Ilyasova.

“It was definitely a challenge (losing three starters), but the next guy has to step up,” Morris said. “We really needed that game and we wanted to go into the break on a high note, but things happen. Hopefully over the break we can get refreshed … and come back with a great mind-set.”

Trailing 75-71 heading into the fourth, the Pistons began to fade away as the Nuggets opened an eight-point lead with back-to-back baskets by Will Barton (20 points) and Jusuf Nurkic (16 points).

Darrun Hilliard’s three-point play and back-to-back 3-pointers by Tolliver brought the Pistons right back, making it a one-point game, 83-82, with 7:33 left.

But the Pistons weren’t able to get stops down the stretch as the Nuggets regained control with a 14-2 run that started with a Randy Foye 3-pointer and a Nurkic putback. Barton did the rest, scoring nine straight points on two layups, three free throws and a jumper to push it to 97-84 with 2:23 remaining.

“You’ve got to give them a lot of credit. Will Barton was very aggressive and making a lot of shots,” said Pistons guard Steve Blake, who finished with six points in his first action since Jan. 16. “They got one too many offensive rebounds and the turnovers on our part. A lot of things we could’ve cleaned up, but you have to give them a lot of credit for forcing those things and playing well.”

Jennings hit a pair of 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions to cut it to 99-90 with 1:38 left but it was too little too late as the Nuggets (22-32) hit four free throws in the final minute to seal it.

“We just didn’t do our job. We didn’t play well,” coach Stan Van Gundy said. “We turned the ball over, didn’t run back on defense a couple times, and didn’t defend hard enough. It had nothing to do with guys being sick or out.”

The Pistons’ makeshift starting unit opened a 9-2 lead behind Johnson and Morris only to watch the Nuggets go on a 7-0 run on a tip-in and fast-break layup by Kenneth Faried (12 points), an Emmanuel Mudiay 3-pointer and jumper by Gary Harris (Michigan State) to grab their first lead, 11-9, at the 5:37 mark.

The Pistons, who used eight of their nine available players in the first, responded with a 7-2 spurt on a Drummond tip-in, a Blake 3-pointer and a Baynes dunk for a 22-20 advantage after one.

After a back-and-forth start to the second, the Pistons used an 11-2 surge to take a 38-31 lead with 6:07 remaining before halftime. Blake started it with a 3-pointer and Morris connected on a jumper before Drummond hit a short hook, Morris threw down a fast-break dunk and Baynes capped it with a jumper from the free-throw line.

The Pistons pushed their lead to double digits when Johnson’s three-point play, Morris’ jumper and Drummond’s three-point play made it 46-36 with four minutes left.

But the double-digit cushion didn’t last long as Mudiay (14 points) sparked a 16-7 Nuggets run, scoring nine points on a pair of jumpers, a driving layup and three-point play in the final 3 minutes, 40 seconds to whittle the Pistons’ lead to 53-52 at halftime.

The Nuggets opened the second half with a 6-3 spurt on a Faried layup and two-handed slam before Harris (11 points) hit a contested layup in transition for a 58-56 edge less than three minutes into the third.

Neither team was able to get much separation until the Nuggets went on a 9-5 run in the final 2 minutes, 30 seconds of the third. Nikola Jokic had a dunk and putback, Foye hit a 3-pointer and Danilo Gallinari (15 points) sank two free throws to make it 75-69 before Baynes’ last-second dunk cut the deficit to four heading into the fourth.

“We’ve seen signs of improvement, but we do have to get better,” Blake said. “We have to buckle down, pay attention to some detail things that are going to take us to the next level. I think (Van Gundy) will get us in the right position to do that and help us make a strong push down the stretch.”