Cleveland — After their 28-point drubbing in November, the Pistons didn’t look like they were going to have a repeat performance in their second meeting against the Cleveland Cavaliers this season.
The margin was closer, but the result was the same.
The Pistons had a five-point lead late in the third quarter and stayed within five points until midway through the fourth, when the Cavaliers pulled away at the end, taking a 121-104 victory on Sunday night at Quicken Loans Arena.
The loss is the eighth straight and 11th in the last 13 games for the Pistons (22-26), who have a home-and-home rematch with the Cavs on Tuesday at Little Caesars Arena. Mired in injuries, the Pistons were without their starting backcourt of Reggie Jackson (sprained right ankle), who was out for the 15th straight game and Avery Bradley, who sat after having right hamstring soreness following pregame warm-ups.
Anthony Tolliver had 18 of his season-high 20 points in the first half and added a season-best five assists. Tobias Harris added 20 points and had Andre Drummond 17 points, 11 rebounds and four assists.
Tolliver got his fifth start of the season, as coach Stan Van Gundy countered the Cavs’ starting group with a bigger lineup. Although Tolliver got going early, with the big first half, they still fell into a first-quarter deficit before the reserves bailed them out.
“We haven’t found a starting lineup that could hold their own,” Van Gundy said. “We’re getting pummeled by good teams’ starting lineups. I don’t have many options left; we have to do a better job."
The Cavaliers (29-19) won their third in a row in the head-to-head series and second straight overall — seemingly righting the ship after a tumultuous 4-10 stretch. LeBron James had 25 points, 14 assists and eight rebounds, and Kevin Love added 20 points and 11 rebounds.
Pistons forward talks about the team's performance in Sunday's 121-104 loss in Cleveland. Rod Beard, The Detroit News
The Pistons led 61-55 in the final minute of the second quarter, after a 3-pointer by Reggie Bullock (14 points) but James halved the lead with a 3-pointer with 2.8 seconds remaining. The Pistons made a big run midway through the third, with a drive and 3-pointer from Harris, for a 79-77 lead.
After a 3-pointer by Jae Crowder (12 points), Drummond scored on an alley-oop from Bullock and Ish Smith added a jumper. Drummond got another lob lay-up and the lead was up to 85-80.
The Cavs answered behind Isaiah Thomas (14 points, seven assists), who split a pair of free throws and had two baskets in the go-ahead 10-0 spurt near the end of the third quarter. Kyle Korver (12 points) hit a 3-pointer and Jeff Green capped the run for a 90-85 Cavs lead.
James had seven points down the stretch in the fourth, with a pair of free throws and a three-point play that punctuated a 10-3 run to push the lead to 108-100 with 3:47 left. The Pistons got a jumper from Smith to answer and get within six, but J.R. Smith (15 points) hit his third 3-pointer of the game and his fourth finished an 8-2 run that put the margin at 12.
“There is no such thing as moral victories but a game that we can take some positives from,” Harris said. “We also have to understand that we put ourselves in that position. They had too many fast-break points.
“In the fourth quarter, we weren’t able to get the good ball movement that we were able to get throughout the game.”
The Pistons went 10-for-21 (48 percent) on 3-pointers in the first half but only 4-for-15 (27 percent) in the second half, which helped turn the tide.
“It was a good win for us. In that second half defensively, we were a lot better,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. “Tolliver made five threes in the first half. Reggie Bullock made three. In the second half, we cleaned that up, holding them to 17 points in the fourth quarter.
“Only holding them to four threes in that second half was good for us.”
Here are some other observations from the Pistons-Cavaliers matchup:
■ After not playing in the last two games, backup center Eric Moreland returned to the lineup, backing up Drummond. Boban Marjanovic had gotten more minutes of late, but Van Gundy looks to be going with matchup-based lineups, finding favorable spots to use Marjanovic where he’d have an offensive advantage. Moreland finished with two points and one rebound.
■ Harris got in early foul trouble, with two in the first quarter and then got his third with 7:57 left in the third. On his third, he was going after a loose ball in the backcourt and committed the foul. He limped around afterwards and limped to the bench, later going to the locker room after being examined by a team athletic trainer.
■ Bradley (right hamstring) missed Sunday’s game; Van Gundy said Bradley experienced soreness after pregame warmups and with the back-to-back following Saturday’s loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. His status for Tuesday’s game against the Cavaliers at Little Caesars Arena is unclear.
■ Stanley Johnson (14 points) looked comfortable in the second unit, running and facilitating in the open court. He added four rebounds and three assists and looked to be as healthy as he’s been since he injured his hip flexor.