Injury-hampered Pistons tough out a victory over Heat
Detroit — After getting Ish Smith and Zaza Pachulia back healthy this week, the Pistons were starting to feel optimistic about their outlook.
There’s another setback.
In Friday’s first quarter against the Miami Heat, the Pistons lost two of their rotation players —Andre Drummond took a shot to the nose and Smith left the game because of groin tightness — and they were shorthanded again.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom, though.
The Pistons lost a 16-point lead but rallied in the fourth quarter to take a 98-93 victory over the Heat at Little Caesars Arena. They’ve won back-to-back games for the first time since beating the Warriors on Dec. 1 and have won three of their last four, with a back-to-back looming on Saturday against the Sacramento Kings.
After the Heat had a 30-12 margin in the third quarter to take the lead, the Pistons mustered up a rally and jumped back ahead.
“We turned our energy machine on. We knew they were going to make a run and it’s one of our habits we have to break: as soon as they make a run, we drop our heads and drop our shoulders and our energy level goes down,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey said. “Winning teams — championship teams — don’t do that. You can’t and once that stretch was over with, we got our engines going and it was about toughness, energy and hard play.
“We took our foot off the pedal in that stretch, but to our credit, they bounced back, got it going again and started attacking.”
Blake Griffin just missed a triple-double, with 32 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists. Luke Kennard added 22 points off the bench and Reggie Bullock scored seven of his 19 in the last five minutes.
The Pistons were clinging to a 92-91 lead in the final minute, when Zaza Pachulia got a tip-in to push the margin to three with 26.7 seconds left. Dwyane Wade (20 points and eight assists) answered with a drive to get within one, but Reggie Jackson made a pair of free throws and after the Pistons got a stop, Griffin sealed it with two more free throws for the final margin.
“Sometimes that’s the silver lining when you have injuries early. Guys have had to step up and play different roles and different positions all season,” Griffin said. “Especially in the past month. We have experience in that field and I think it showed tonight.”
Drummond left at the 4:46 mark of the first after taking an elbow to the nose. He was diagnosed with a nasal contusion and Casey said Drummond will be re-evaluated on Saturday. Smith has a tightness in his groin and is day-to-day. Given that he missed 19 games because of the right adductor tear, the Pistons likely will be very cautious with his playing time and won’t rush him back.
The Pistons led, 58-45, at the 10:23 mark of the third quarter after Griffin made a pair of free throws. The Heat surged from there, with back-to-back 3-pointers by Tyler Johnson (16 points). That ignited a 21-4 run over the last 7:47, with only a jumper by Kennard and a drive by Griffin.
The Heat (21-22) finished the run with 12 straight points, as Wade made back-to-back baskets, Johnson added a 3-pointer and James Johnson had the exclamation point with a dunk with 46.3 seconds left, for a 69-65 margin entering the fourth.
Kennard was a spark plug offensively, getting engaged and taking quick but decisive shots, which has been the message Casey and the coaching staff have tried to impart.
“That’s what they’ve been preaching to me, just over and over again,” Kennard said. “I just keep saying, the mindset of being aggressive and being who I am.”
Kennard had two free throws and a 3-pointer to start the final period and Stanley Johnson (12 points and six rebounds) scored on a drive and hit a 3-pointer to put the Pistons back ahead, 75-74, at the 7:58 mark. The Pistons extended the lead with an 8-0 run, with 3-pointers by Jackson and Kennard and a hook by Griffin and looked to be back in it with an 83-78 lead.
Justise Winslow (15 points and nine rebounds have back-to-back drives to get within 87-86, but the Heat never got the lead again.
1. Without Drummond, the Pistons had to leverage their big men, with Griffin and Pachulia sharing the minutes. With Jon Leuer (illness) and Henry Ellenson inactive, they didn’t have any alternatives, but handled splitting the playing time well.
2. Kennard was the big surprise, going 8-of-17 from the field, but hitting 4-of-8 from beyond the arc. He looked more decisive and didn’t hesitate on his looks, especially on 3-pointers. It’s what the coaching staff has been trying to get him to do more and at least for one game, the work showed.
3. The Heat set a franchise record for futility, making just 26 percent (5-of-19) from the free-throw line. Hassan Whiteside was 0-of-8 and finished with eight points and 10 rebounds and Winslow missed both of his attempts. In a close game, those free throws played a big role in the momentum.
4. Wade got a rousing ovation as he was introduced for what’s very likely his last time playing in Detroit. He looked to have a burst of energy, shooting 10-of-14 and chipping in 20 points and eight assists. He scored the Heat’s final four points and kept them close down the stretch.
“It was great. I’ve had so many battles here and the fan base has always been great since Day 1,” Wade said. “I always got a lot of love from the standpoint of a lot of guys wishing they drafted me.”
5. The Pistons made their free throws down the stretch, which helped them put the game away. They were 15-of-18 for the game and when the shots weren’t falling, they could at least count on hitting from the line to keep them afloat.