Auburn Hills — Throughout their up-and-down season, the Pistons have been plagued by stretches of playing to the level of their opponent. In several of their marquee games, the Pistons have come up with an empty effort.
Not this time.
In a critical matchup for their final playoff push, the Pistons played one of their best games of the season, against a team that had dominated them in both meetings this season.
The Pistons had their highest-scoring first half of the season and continued to push, stretching the lead to 26 points in the fourth quarter, taking a 112-105 victory over the Charlotte Hornets at The Palace on Friday night.
It’s the fifth straight win for the Pistons (39-34), who cushioned their lead to two games ahead of the Chicago Bulls for eighth place and climbed within percentage points of the Indiana Pacers for the No. 7 spot in the Eastern Conference race.
Reggie Jackson said it was as satisfying a win as the Pistons have had this season, especially given the implications.
“Definitely with the way we’ve been punched in the mouth by them twice, especially with the position we’re in, fighting for a playoff spot,” said Jackson, who had 17 points, six rebounds and seven assists. “This is one of the better wins for us, where we felt like we controlled the game. The only thing better would be if we closed out those last few minutes.”
In those last few minutes a 26-point lead with 7:49 remaining shriveled to five with 37.6 seconds left. But the Pistons were able to close it out, with four free throws in the final stretch.
That lapse normally might have driven coach Stan Van Gundy berserk, but given the need for wins to solidify a playoff spot, he wasn’t nearly so critical.
“We need to win and move on,” Van Gundy said. “We played 39 great minutes. We really outplayed a very good team for 39 minutes and then their last five guys played really well. Against their best players, we were dominant and it was a great 39 minutes.”
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had 21 points and seven rebounds, Marcus Morris 20 points and seven rebounds and Andre Drummond notched his 60th double-double of the season with 18 points and 14 rebounds for the Pistons, who are 5-1 — ensuring a winning record — on their nine-game home stand.
The Pistons had lost the first two meetings against the Hornets by 20 and 15 points, respectively, after disastrous first quarters.
Friday was different.
Turning the tables early, the Pistons raced out to a 12-3 lead, with six straight points by Drummond, and a hook, putback and alley-oop from Jackson, by the 8:47 mark.
The Hornets (41-31) responded behind Kemba Walker, who had 25 of his 29 points in the first half but didn’t have a field goal after halftime. Walker’s 3-pointer and jumper on back-to-back possessions helped cut the lead to two — and surprisingly, the Hornets never get closer.
The early knockout blow came on a 16-2 run near the end of the first quarter, with a 3-pointer by Morris, a three-point play by Jackson — keying his seven straight points — and back-to-back 3-pointers by Anthony Tolliver, who had 11 points off the bench.
Hornets coach Steve Clifford credited Jackson with being the difference-maker with his penetration, which Charlotte had a hard time stopping.
“He drilled us — he drilled us in transition, drilled us with his pick-and-roll game; everything that we worked on (in practice) yesterday and today,” Clifford said. “He was too much for us and lived in the paint.”
Walker ignited in the final minute, hitting a jumper just before the shot clock expired and after Morris connected on a jumper with 6.9 seconds left, Walker hit a 3-pointer to trim the Pistons’ lead to 36-24 after the first quarter.
The Pistons shot 56 percent in the first quarter and their 36 points were the second-highest total of the season.
Things just got better in the second quarter.
Aron Baynes (16 points and eight rebounds) sparked a spirited bench effort, with seven straight Pistons points to open the period, including a three-point play that boosted the lead to 13, after Jeremy Lamb and Frank Kaminsky had 3-pointers for the Hornets.
Drummond was active on both ends of the court, helping on defense and either blocking shots or affecting others, as well as attacking the rim on offense. He has six straight Pistons points down the stretch — interrupting a stretch with a three-point play and a 3-pointer by Walker — to push the lead to 22.
“It starts with me and I made it a point today when I came in to try to have the most energy on the floor, to get my team going,” Drummond said.
The half ended much like the first quarter, as Morris hit a 3-pointer with 1.6 seconds left for a 19-point lead, but Walker answered with another 3-pointer to make it 72-56 at halftime.
But unlike some of their lackluster efforts this season, the Pistons didn’t falter, never letting the Hornets seriously threaten the rest of the way — and exorcising some of the demons of the two lopsided losses at Charlotte this season.
“The first two times we played them, we didn’t play very well; it was pretty disappointing,” Drummond said. “We came out with energy tonight, fought hard and came out with a big win.”
Caldwell-Pope scored 14 of the Pistons’ 26 points in the third quarter, including a pull-up 3-pointer in transition, capping a 9-0 run; he added a lay-in in the final minute.