Reggie Bullock talks after the Pistons' loss to the Nuggets. Rod Beard, The Detroit News
Denver — One game, it’s a slow open by the starters. The next game, it’s a bad response from the reserves.
Sometimes, they give up a big run in the first quarter; other times, it’s the second or third quarter. Over the last 15 games, it’s become a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book with a familiar ending: a loss for the Pistons.
Thursday’s edition included allowing the Denver Nuggets a second-quarter run that built the lead to double digits — and a third quarter that flipped the script with a bit of suspense. The ending still was the same, as the Nuggets elevated to 120-113 victory over the Pistons on Thursday night at Pepsi Center.
The Pistons (30-38) have had a string of blowout defeats in their current swoon of 12 losses in their last 15 games. Their playoff hopes are all but gone, as they trail the Miami Heat by 5 1/2 games for the final spot in the East with just 14 games remaining.
The Pistons have lost 11 consecutive games on the road.
Blake Griffin had 26 points, six rebounds and nine assists and Andre Drummond added 21 points and 17 rebounds to lift the comeback effort.
It just ran out of steam in the thin air of Denver.
The Pistons trailed by 26 in the third quarter but used a 14-2 run in the final 2:39 to trim the lead to 98-84 heading into the fourth. They had a furious rally — a 27-6 run, bridging the third and fourth — and cut the margin to five with 6:55 left in the fourth to make the adventure a little more interesting.
“That’s the fight that we’ve had early on in the year — not quitting and not giving in,” Drummond said. “(The Nuggets) had their run, they played very well through the whole game but that fourth quarter, we woke up and played very well, but not enough to win the game.”
Reserve guard Dwight Buycks — back in the lineup after missing two games because of a sprained left ankle — had 15 of his career-best 22 points during the run, including six straight in a fourth-quarter flurry.
“He gave us a good lift, attacking on pick-and-rolls,” coach Stan Van Gundy said. “He did a really good job and was a big part of us getting back in the game.”
Buycks’ two free throws cut the lead to 102-97 but Gary Harris (Michigan State) had back-to-back baskets, including a dunk for a three-point play, to push the lead back to 10.
Drummond scored the next four Pistons points, part of a 6-2 spurt that got it back to 109-103 at the 2:37 mark. That six-point margin was the closest the Pistons would get the rest of the way, as the Nuggets (38-31) made their free throws down the stretch.
Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy talks after the loss to the Nuggets Rod Beard, The Detroit News
Jamal Murray had 26 points and nine rebounds and Nikola Jokic notched his eighth triple-double of the season with 23 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists.
The Nuggets had a 33-29 lead after the first quarter and scored the first six points of the second, pushing the lead to 10. Will Barton got hot in the second, with 10 of his 23 points in the period, boosting the bench unit, which outscored the Pistons, 46-36.
Denver lead got up to 17, but the Pistons finished the half with a jumper by Reggie Bullock and a 3-pointer by James Ennis III, part of an 8-2 run, before Murray’s 3-pointer to make it 65-51.
The Nuggets took their largest lead, 96-70, with 3:22 left in the third after a 3-pointer by Barton. Murray had scored the previous 11 Nuggets points, with three 3-pointers. The Pistons rallied, for a 14-2 run to end the period.
“We knew we dug ourselves a hole, so it was more like, ‘Were we going to fight or were we going to let up?’” Buycks said. “I think everybody was like, ‘No matter who’s out there, just leave it out on the floor and see what we do.”
The reserve group was a concern again for Van Gundy, with the flat second-quarter. He played all five reserves together and didn’t get the production to stay with the Nuggets bench.
“I’ll be honest: there’s a lot of guys we have and some are young guys. It’s hard because I don’t know what we’re going to get from night to night,” Van Gundy said. “It makes decision-making in that regard tough. Other than Eric, we basically played the same unit in the second half and it was good.”
Gary Harris looked to injure his right knee on a transition basket midway through the fourth quarter. Harris got a lead pass and went up for a dunk and was fouled by Stanley Johnson. Harris stayed on the court for a few moments and was examined by training staff and stayed in to attempt the free throw, but then exited the game.