Auburn Hills — In the midst of a critical four-game stretch against some of the league’s worst teams, the Pistons struggled to put away the Brooklyn Nets and Sacramento Kings last weekend.
The Pistons allowed the two inferior teams — one that has been eliminated from playoff contention and the other on the brink of it — to hang around through three quarters until finally taking care of business in the fourth.
On Monday night, the Pistons found themselves on the other end of it, battling back against the Milwaukee Bucks, the league’s youngest team playing on the second night of a back-to-back.
After they overcame a 17-point deficit in the first half and having trailed for the majority of the game, Andre Drummond scored on a tip-in with 2.1 seconds left to lift the Pistons to their third straight win, a heart-racing, 92-91 victory at The Palace.
Marcus Morris scored 21 and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope 15 for the Pistons (37-34), who remain a percentage point behind the eighth-place Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference standings. Drummond finished with 14 points and 16 rebounds, Tobias Harris added 13 points and Anthony Tolliver 11.
“If you look at the numbers, it’s really hard to find — other than free-throw advantage — it’s really hard to find a way to win that game, but we hung in there,” Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said. “We gave ourselves a chance to get lucky at the end and we got lucky. Sometimes that’s what it takes, but you got to hang in there to give yourself a chance.”
With the Pistons trailing 91-90 with 7.5 seconds remaining, Caldwell-Pope took the inbounds pass near half-court on the Pistons’ final play and took two dribbles before launching a contested 3-pointer from the wing.
“We ran the play, they just took everything away,” Van Gundy said. “They took Marcus away and then they did a good job switching out on Pope and took that away. He had to come out so far to get the ball he didn’t have a shot, he had to bring the ball into range.”
Caldwell-Pope’s shot misfired but bounced to Drummond, who had gained inside position on Giannis Antetokounmpo (21 points, 12 rebounds) along the right side for the putback.
“I was just in the right place at the right time and I timed it right,” Drummond said. “We fought all game and shots weren’t falling for us and we struggled a little bit but to come out with that type of win at the end of the game is very satisfying. We got a lot more work to do with 11 more games left.”
The Bucks (30-41) were unable to get off a clean shot as time expired.
The thrilling finish was set up after Reggie Jackson’s driving layup made it a one-point game and Jerryd Bayless missed two free throws with 9.6 seconds left to give the Pistons a shot to win it.
“(Bayless) shoots 90 percent from the free-throw line, so our expectation was if he makes both, hopefully get three,” Harris said. “Especially being at home and being down one point, with Andre — a great rebounder — and guys who can make shots, we came into the timeout and we knew we were going to come out of here with the victory.”
The Pistons started the fourth quarter facing a 74-65 deficit, but whittled it to 78-74 at the 7:02 mark on two free throws from Stanley Johnson and Harris’ three-point play.
Then with 4:09 remaining, the Pistons tied it at 84 after Morris hit consecutive 3-pointers and Drummond hit a floater.
But Greg Monroe (18 points, 10 rebounds) quickly answered with a tip-in and Khris Middleton’s three-point play extended the Bucks’ lead to 89-84 with 2:36 left.
After Morris missed a pair of backbreaking free throws, Jackson scored a layup and Harris made two free throws on the Pistons’ next two possessions to cut it to 89-88 with 46.9 seconds remaining.
Khris Middleton (27 points) responded with a jumper from the wing to give the Bucks a 91-88 advantage with 30.3 seconds left to help set the stage for Drummond’s last-second heroics.
“Everybody was thrilled,” Caldwell-Pope said. “We were excited, we needed that win. We had been down the entire game so it was a relief.”
The Bucks shot 60.9 percent from the field in the first and led 30-17 after one. Their hot shooting continued as they hit two free throws and their first two shots to open the second with a 6-2 run to pull ahead, 36-19, at the 9:45 mark.
The Pistons’ bench helped cut it to 38-28 with a pair of Tolliver 3-pointers and three-point play by Steve Blake before the starters rattled off an 11-0 run to tie it at 39 with 4:05 remaining. Morris started the spurt with six straight points on a jumper and four-point play, Caldwell-Pope followed with a 3-pointer and Harris capped it with a driving layup.
But the Bucks quashed the Pistons’ momentum with an Antetokounmpo jumper and Bayless 3-pointer to reclaim the lead en route to a 48-45 halftime advantage.
The Pistons found themselves facing another double-digit deficit midway through the third quarter after Antetokounmpo’s 3-pointer and layup and Middleton’s 3-pointer made it 64-54.
An Aron Baynes dunk and Tolliver 3-pointer cut the deficit in half, but the Bucks answered with an 8-0 run with two Middleton jumpers sandwiched around a layup and dunk by Antetokounmpo for a 72-59 advantage at the 1:58 mark.
Caldwell-Pope scored back-to-back baskets and Tolliver made a layup in the final 1:47 to cut it to 74-65 heading into the fourth.
“I thought we played very well for four quarters,” Bucks coach Jason Kidd said. “The game was a game of inches, the ball bounced their way and they came up with a big win.”