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Casey said the bench didn't play up to their level and the starters had to play more minutes to compensate. Rod Beard, The Detroit News

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Dallas — After their miserable losing skids in December and January, the Pistons look to be getting closer to playing at a better level to compete. Their games — both wins and losses — are coming down to execution in the final minutes and finishing out games.

It’s just a couple of plays here or there that will determine the outcome of those games.

Friday’s matchup with the Dallas Mavericks was another example of why the Pistons have been so inconsistent: They were within three points in the final four minutes but couldn’t get over the hump to get a lead and pull away.

When they got close, Mavericks rookie Luka Doncic kept them at arm’s length, helping close out a 106-101 victory over the Pistons at American Airlines Center.

BOX SCORE: Mavericks 106, Pistons 101

Doncic finished with 32 points, eight rebounds and eight assists, including a stepback jumper with 1:19 left that pushed the lead to seven and added two free throws in the final minute to help put the victory away.

“It doesn’t feel good at all. We’re not here to play close — you only get that with horseshoes and hand grenades,” coach Dwane Casey said. “It’s what, the 10th (loss) by five points or less? It’s just making decisions down the stretch.”

The Pistons (21-27) finished their three-game trip with just one win — on Wednesday over the Pelicans — and don’t play again until Tuesday, when they host the Milwaukee Bucks at Little Caesars Arena.

Blake Griffin had 35 points, seven rebounds and four assists and Andre Drummond, in his first game back after missing three games, added 23 points and 15 rebounds.

The Pistons tied it at 92 on a 3-pointer by Luke Kennard with 8:44 remaining and after a free throw by Dorian Finney-Smith and a 3-pointer by Devin Harris, they were back in a four-point deficit.

More: Pistons mailbag: Pistons still better off with Griffin

Drummond scored on a lay-in as the shot clock expired and split a pair of free throws and Griffin added a basket, appearing to give the Pistons a 97-96 lead, but officials later reviewed the Drummond play and ruled that his basket came after the shot clock expired.

The review didn’t come until after a few more possessions and changed the tenor of the game.

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Drummond had 23 points and 15 rebounds but the Pistons fell to the Mavericks Rod Beard, The Detroit News

“Going into that timeout, we were drawing up a play to come out and try to tie the game and came out of the timeout and we were down by five,” Griffin said. “Either way, we have to execute that play but it’s a weird thing to go up and down a couple times (before reviewing it).”

Harrison Barnes added a free throw and Maxi Kleber (12 points) hit his fourth 3-pointer to push the lead to 100-95 at the 3:34 mark. Drummond was fouled intentionally and made both free throws, but the Pistons couldn’t get a stop

DeAndre Jordan (13 points and 11 rebounds) scored on a power dunk and Doncic added a stepback jumper with 1:19 left to push the lead to seven — and the Pistons didn’t recover.

The Pistons reserves combined for just 15 points, and a tough start to the second quarter — fueled by back-to-back 3-pointers by Doncic — put the Pistons in a hole after a 28-23 first-period lead.

“We played well if you take away the second quarter. Our bench was 4-for-21 and they’ve been good to us all year,” Casey said. “I wish I could play Blake and Andre and those guys 48 minutes, but we can’t. So, we just have to get some production out of our bench.”

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Observations

1. Reggie Jackson had a better outing on the offensive end, but not just with his 3-point shooting (3-of-9). His season-high nine assists were critical in getting others involved in the offense and spreading the ball around for options other than Griffin. Jackson was only 4-of-14 from the field but his passing was better than most of the season.

2. Reggie Bullock twisted his left ankle late in the second quarter and left the court to go to the locker room to be examined by the medical staff. He returned to start the third quarter and on his first shot attempt, he hit a 3-pointer. It was a concern because Bullock has had a couple of sprained ankles this season and missed a chunk of games because of them.

3. Drummond returned to the lineup after missing three starts and most of the previous game because he was in the concussion protocol after suffering a nasal contusion against the Heat last week. He played 38 minutes and looked refreshed after the long layoff. Casey said he extended the playing time for Griffin (40 minutes) because of the three days off ahead. 

4. The reserve group was bad in the first half, letting the Mavs overcome a five-point deficit and take a 10-point lead during a run in the second quarter. They redeemed themselves in the third and fourth quarters, helping the Pistons stay close and holding on until the starters returned in the fourth to finish.

5. The Pistons didn't have a defensive answer for Doncic, but he slowed him a bit when Stanley Johnson — a bigger and taller defender than Bruce Brown — was guarding him in the second half. Johnson said he didn’t do anything specific to prepare for Doncic but just tried to force him to his weaker hand. 

Rod.Beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard

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