Pistons fall to Hawks, playoff grasp is tenuous

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — The Pistons didn’t quite produce the defensive abomination that they did in Monday’s 43-point loss at Washington.

What’s more, they had a much better offensive performance.

It still wasn’t enough.

The Pistons led by 11 in the third quarter but went cold in the final four minutes — before a late comeback attempt fell short — and the Atlanta Hawks pounced on the opportunity, soaring to a 118-114 victory Wednesday night at The Palace.

The Chicago Bulls also lost and the Pistons hold the head-to-head tiebreaker for the eighth playoff spot in the East. The Pistons are at.500 with 14 games to go. The next eight games are at home; the following four are against teams with losing records.

BOX SCORE: Hawks 118, Pistons 114

“They’re important. This game was important and we needed it,” said Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who had 24 points. “The next four games, we have to take them seriously and we can’t play down to our opponent. We have to play hard and try to get it.”

Tobias Harris had 19 points and 11 rebounds, Andre Drummond 18 points and 18 rebounds and Reggie Jackson 17 points and 10 assists.

But the defense again was the Pistons’ bugaboo, giving up 60-plus points in the first half for the third time in the last four games. They have allowed an average of 118 points in the last four games, which include three losses.

“I can’t find any answers; we’re just not guarding anybody. Their point guards killed us: 40 points and 16 assists,” coach Stan Van Gundy said. “We can’t have (Caldwell-Pope) guard everybody. Somebody else has to be able to guard someone on the court.”

The Pistons (34-34) had a one-point lead with four minutes left, but the Hawks ran off the next 10 points, while the Pistons missed their next three shots and had two turnovers.

Atlanta’s run put it out of reach, as Paul Millsap (13 points and 10 rebounds) converted a three-point play, Jeff Teague (22 points and nine assists) had four free throws and Thabo Sefolosha made three free throws down the stretch for a 113-104 lead at the 1:21 mark.

The Pistons surged, cutting it to 116-114 on a three-point play by Marcus Morris (14 points) with 18.8 seconds left but the Hawks (39-29) put it away with two more free throws by Teague.

“I think it’s a good win,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “We caught them and they played really well tonight and we were fortunate to find a way to win.”

The Pistons looked to be in control in the third quarter, after a 17-3 run covering a stretch of 4-1/2 minutes. Harris and Drummond had back-to-back baskets and the Pistons made six straight free throws. Harris finished the stretch with a turnaround jumper, Drummond added a three-point play and Harris another two free throws, for an 82-71 lead at the 4:02 mark.

The game turned on a second-chance opportunity, as the Hawks got a loose ball and Al Horford (21 points and 11 rebounds) hit a 3-pointer. That ignited a 16-2 spurt for Atlanta over the next three minutes, with nine points from Horford, four from Dennis Schroder (18 points) and a three-point play by Thabo Sefolosha.

Sefolosha’s alley-oop pass to Horford capped the run and the Hawks led, 87-84. The Pistons responded with a runner by Steve Blake and two free throws by Caldwell-Pope in the final 30 seconds to regain the lead, 88-87, entering the fourth.

“They played fast. They were pretty much running fast breaks and taking the ball out as soon as they got it; it was just full speed up the floor,” Drummond said. “Down the stretch of the game, we picked it up defensively but it just wasn’t enough to come out with the win.”

The Hawks got back-to-back 3-pointers from Sefolosha and Kyle Korver for a 95-91 lead and after a Drummond free throw, got another 3-pointer by Schroder, for a 98-92 advantage with 8:08 remaining.

The Hawks used the strategy of intentionally fouling Drumming, who went 4-of-8 on free throws over the next four minutes to keep them close. Drummond had a tip-in to tie it at 103 and split a pair of free throws for a one-point lead at the 4:08 mark. The Hawks held the Pistons scoreless for the next three minutes and answered with the 10-0 run.

The Pistons shot 57 percent (25-of-44) in the first half but only managed a 62-61 lead, after allowing the Hawks to shoot 52 percent.

“We played better offensively; I didn’t think our offense was bad. We didn’t shoot the ball well from 3, but that’s sort of who we are,” Van Gundy said. “We rolled with Andre’s free throws and we had some really bad turnovers.”