Auburn Hills — The frustration and losses were beginning to mount for the Pistons.
But with a grueling stretch upcoming, Detroit was hoping to get some reprieve Monday at The Palace.
Instead, late missed free throws and poor rebounding added to the Pistons’ woes as the James Harden-led Houston Rockets handed them their fourth straight loss in a 99-96, down-to-the-wire defeat.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored 26 and Andre Drummond had 13 points and 16 rebounds, but both missed potential game-tying free throws in the final 10 seconds for the Pistons (6-9), who were outrebounded 46-39.
Harden overcame a slow start to finish with 28 points on 6-for-17 shooting for the Rockets (9-5).
“It’s tough, especially just coming off what we came off, a two-point game (to the Celtics). It’s a tough loss,” forward Marcus Morris said. “It was a coincidence at the end of the game. Same thing happened at the end of both games with offensive rebounds, so we got to find a way to play harder or just get rebounds.”
Trailing 97-95 with 15.4 seconds left, Caldwell-Pope drove to the rim and drew a foul on a layup attempt with nine seconds left. Caldwell-Pope hit the first free throw, but missed the second, as the Rockets corralled the rebound and called a timeout.
Harden was fouled on the ensuing possession and had the chance to put the Rockets up three. But he missed his second attempt and Drummond was quickly fouled on the rebound by Clint Capela (15 points, 12 rebounds) with 4.6 seconds remaining.
Drummond misfired on both attempts and Harden added another free throw before Caldwell-Pope’s desperation heave as time expired was well off the mark.
“I think you can look at it and there are three things,” Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said. “I think we had a horrendously bad second quarter defensively where we didn’t put anything into the game. Getting outrebounded again, it has become a habit of ours.
Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy says a 'horrendously bad' second quarter led to the loss.
“Then our inability to convert in the paint. One thing that stands out is we got two more shots in the paint than they did, and they scored 14 more points in the paint than we did. To shoot under 40 percent in the paint is pretty difficult.”
After the Pistons closed out the third quarter with a flurry on back-to-back Caldwell-Pope jumpers and an off-balance 3-pointer from Morris (13 points) as time expired to make it 79-75, the momentum spilled over into the fourth.
The Pistons opened with a 10-3 run to take an 85-82 lead with 7:23 left. Caldwell-Pope and Reggie Bullock started it with a jumper apiece, Drummond knocked down a hook shot, Bullock tipped in his own missed layup and Jon Leuer (12 points) threw down a dunk to cap it.
The teams then traded blows with Trevor Ariza (14 points) knocking down a 3-pointer to give the Rockets a one-point lead before Morris countered with two jumpers to put the Pistons back on top, 91-88, with 4:10 remaining.
The Rockets swung back in the form of a Ryan Anderson (10 points) layup and Ariza 3-pointer to regain a 93-91 edge just over a minute later.
Caldwell-Pope hit a lefty lay-in to tie it at 93 before Harden drew a foul on a 3-point attempt, but missed two of his three free throws to give the Rockets a one-point lead.
Harden made up for it with a step-back jumper over Leuer to make it 96-93 with 1:06 remaining.
Drummond tipped in a Caldwell-Pope missed layup to keep it a one-possession game and cut the deficit to one. Then after Ariza misfired on a 3-pointer, the Pistons had a chance to take the lead, but Ish Smith (10 points) missed a reverse layup and the Rockets corralled the rebound with 19.8 seconds left.
From there, it turned into a free-throw contest with Harden splitting two free throws with 15.4 seconds left to make it 97-95 and set up the heartbreaking finish.
“It's tough,” Caldwell-Pope said. “It’s four (losses) in a row, so we got to find it within ourselves to pick it up and get wins.”
The Pistons flexed their muscles early, jumping out to a 20-8 lead before going cold down the stretch and using a Beno Udrih 3-pointer as time expired for a 25-18 advantage after one quarter.
Within the first two minutes of the second, the Pistons pushed the lead to double digits, 29-18, but the Rockets used a 12-3 spurt — capped by seven straight Harden points — to close out the half and grab a 51-46 lead at the break.
The Rockets widened the margin in the third as Harden rattled off seven straight points to put the Pistons in a 79-68 hole before Caldwell-Pope sparked a 7-0 spurt to make it a four-point game heading into the dramatic fourth quarter.
“(Our rebounding) got better the last two games but it’s still not good,” Van Gundy said. “We’re all upset about the loss but we, especially on the boards and even getting back on transition, we’re not competing as hard as we need to.
“We’re going to have to toughen up to be able to accomplish what we want to accomplish.”