Detroit — The Pistons have been plagued by slow starts, with poor defense leading to double-digit deficits in the first quarter. It makes it hard to climb out of holes when the reserves have huge margins to overcome and play from behind.
The Pistons turned the tables on Friday night.
Instead of a deficit, the starting lineup left with a 15-point lead near the end of the first quarter.
That wasn’t enough, either.
That lead evaporated by halftime and the Washington Wizards conjured a 45-point third quarter, helping them surge to a 122-112 victory over the Pistons at Little Caesars Arena.
Andre Drummond flirted with a triple-double with 14 points, 21 rebounds and tied his career high with eight assists. Tobias Harris had 17 points and Luke Kennard had all 16 of his points in the fourth quarter for the Pistons (22-22), who have lost four straight and seven of their last nine games.
After their hot 14-6 start, the Pistons are back at .500 for the first time since Oct. 23 — they haven’t had a losing record all season — and face the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday.
Pistons coach talks about his team's performance in Friday's 122-112 loss. Rod Beard, The Detroit News
They’ll have to address their defensive issues to avoid extending the losing skid.
“Our guys coming off the bench to start the second quarter were not ready for the pressure that their bench guys brought,” coach Stan Van Gundy said. “In the third quarter, I really don’t know what the problem was.”
After rallying to tie it at 46 at halftime, the Wizards (26-20) took control early. Following a 3-pointer from Otto Porter Jr. (16 points) gave them the lead for good, John Wall (16 points, 11 assists) scored his first basket of the game at the 11:02 mark and followed with a three-point play. Washington had a 22-8 run over the first 5:02.
The Wizards looked to be firmly in control, behind Bradley Beal, who scored 11 of his 26 points during a 13-2 spurt, for a 79-59 lead with 4:05 remaining in the third. The Pistons managed only a pair of free throws from Harris and went without a field goal for more than three minutes.
Trailing 91-74 entering the fourth, the Pistons made a mad dash, with an 11-3 spurt with Langston Galloway hitting a pair of baskets and Anthony Tolliver adding a dunk off a dish from Stanley Johnson and two free throws.
Johnson (hip flexor) returned from an eight-game injury absence brought energy, including the steal and assist on the Tolliver dunk. Johnson later hit a corner 3-pointer, keying the run and cutting the deficit to 97-90.
Pistons forward talks about playing for the first time in Friday's 122-112 loss to the Wizards after missing the last eight games with a hip flexor injury. Rod Beard, The Detroit News
“He was really big. Stanley came out playing with a lot of energy — and that’s what we need from him,” said Avery Bradley, who had 15 points. “I’m happy with the way he played tonight. I just want him to continue to play that way every opportunity he gets.”
The Wizards answered with a 3-pointer from Kelly Oubre — who had a career-high 26 points — and a putback by Markieff Morris. The Pistons had another 10-2 spurt and got within 104-100 with 3:59 left.
Wall answered with a 3-pointer to stop the run but Kennard converted a pair of free throws to stay within five. Porter put the game away with a four-point play, pushing it to 113-104 at the 2:36 mark.
The Pistons never got closer than six the rest of the way.
Van Gundy lamented the inconsistent and erratic defensive effort.
“I’m used to offense being inconsistent, particularly when you’re down your starting point guard. Our defense is too inconsistent. It seems like it’s rarely in a middle ground,” he said. “The ups and downs are (generally) from not very good to better. We go from great to worst defense in the league. I’m having a hard time figuring that one out.”
Pistons center talks about his performance and the team's inconsistent defense in Friday's 122-112 loss. Rod Beard, The Detroit News
Here are some other observations from the matchup:
■ After giving Dwight Buycks a long look at backup point guard as Reggie Jackson recovers from his ankle sprain, Van Gundy looked to Galloway to play in the reserve role. Galloway responded with a pair of jumpers in the first two minutes of the fourth quarter, sparking a 7-2 run that got the Pistons going. Van Gundy pointed to Buycks turnovers and a lack of effort getting back on defense.
■ After missing the last eight games because of a hip flexor injury, Johnson returned and started the fourth quarter. He had been having range-of-motion issues with tightness in the hip area, but after warming up on the stationary bike during the first half, he was ready to go in the fourth quarter and was a difference-maker.
“We had just given up 45 in the third. Stanley is a good defensive player; I should have gone to him earlier in the third,” Van Gundy said. “The thought was we need to get some stops and pick up our defensive intensity.”
■ Van Gundy also played Drummond heavy minutes — a season-high 43 minutes — including all of the second half, before he fouled out in the final minute. Drummond was on a triple-double watch, with 11 points, 17 rebounds and seven assists through the first three quarters. His previous career high was eight assists, against the Atlanta Hawks on Dec. 14.
■ Along with shifting the rotation with Drummond and Johnson, Van Gundy also went to an alternate rotation, with Harris and Bullock on the bench and Ish Smith finishing down the stretch with Kennard and Johnson. They played better on defense and spurred the late run and Van Gundy said he just wanted to roll with the hot hands.