Detroit — All that juice the Pistons generated from the Blake Griffin trade? Vaporized, swept away by waves of defensive lethargy. Barely a week after they made a bold move to save their season, the Pistons have reverted in alarming fashion.
From a spark to a fizzle, the Pistons have lost three straight, surrendering meekly to New Orleans, 118-103, on Monday night at Little Caesars Arena. This was an embarrassing effort, one night after another embarrassing effort in a 118-115 loss at Atlanta.
After winning five straight, there was some concern the Pistons were standing around on offense, watching Griffin operate. Not the problem here. They simply stood around on defense and watched the Pelicans operate, and when superstar Anthony Davis (38 points) has room, he uses it and abuses it.
Stan Van Gundy was perplexed. So were Andre Drummond and Griffin. You could call it inexplicable, except that this team bounces up and down so wildly, it’s impossible to know what’s next. It definitely was inexcusable, as the Pistons wadded up the goodwill from the Griffin deal and tossed it aside. Just when they started grabbing long-sought attention, they dropped this hideous bomb.
This one stung them deeply, and there was some serious introspection afterward.
“Those effort plays we haven’t been making, loose balls on the ground, nobody’s been diving for them,” Drummond said. “Maybe we got ahead of ourselves, excited about the five wins. Maybe people are banged up, maybe people are tired, could be a list of things. But I think it’s inexcusable for our play defensively.”
D IS FOR ... DISINTEREST?
The Pistons have been mostly average on defense, so perhaps these last lame efforts are an anomaly, not a pattern. Fatigue is a handy excuse, as they played on back-to-back days for the first time since acquiring Griffin.
This was not about substitutions or strategy; it was about disinterest and disorientation. The Pelicans practically stood at the 3-point line and fired at will, with nary a hand in their faces. They hit 14 of 34 deep shots, while also scoring 54 points in the paint.
Basically, the Pistons gave up everything and retreated everywhere on the floor. After the loss in Atlanta, Van Gundy said “our defense stinks.” He refrained from a harsher assessment Monday night, and you can guess why.
He has to take responsibility too, and he admits it. Inconsistent effort is a players’ problem, but also a coaching problem.
“Look, it’s me — I’m not one of those guys (that says) I’m doing a great job and they’re not playing well,” Van Gundy said. “I have a hard time watching that as a coach, that we haven’t gotten our guys playing better and harder defensively the last couple games. We went through a stretch where we fought really hard, that’s what’s hard for me to understand.
“(The Pelicans) are a good offensive team, and (Jrue) Holiday and Davis had really, really good nights. But when you’re not back in transition, when you won’t put your body between the ball and the basket -- we weren’t physical enough or tough enough.”
It wasn’t anger after this one, more confusion and disappointment. And sometime soon, it has to morph into desperation.
Maybe the early energy and exhilaration from Griffin’s arrival partly disguised their flaws, and now the Pistons (27-29) are settling into a sobering reality. They’re still three games outside the final playoff spot, and just surrendered 118 points in consecutive games to a horrible Atlanta team and a decent New Orleans (30-26) team.
CAN’T GO ON BREAK EARLY
The Pistons play the Hawks again Wednesday night here before the All-Star break, and if they don’t compete about a billion times harder, something is wrong. Yes, they need the break to rest and further assimilate Griffin and other newcomers Jameer Nelson and James Ennis III. But they reaped the quick-impact benefit from Griffin, so they have to weather the transition pains too.
Drummond spoke in measured tones, knowing this is where his role as a growing leader will be tested.
“Everyone obviously was excited to have (Griffin) here,” Drummond said. “I just think the adjustment period is starting to come into effect. We played off excitement and energy the first few games. Now that we’ve kind of settled in, it’s more about trying to figure out how to get past that first step, just figuring each other out.”
Van Gundy has to figure it out too. Reggie Jackson should be back sometime shortly after the break, and he’s sorely needed. Nelson played 20 minutes Monday night and took 12 shots, too much and too many for a 35-year-old backup point guard.
Griffin mostly returned to his more-effective spot inside, rolling to the basket, but missed five of six 3-point attempts. He’s also figuring things out, but I don’t think offense will be the major issue going forward.
“We probably just have to play harder,” Griffin said. “I thought for the first time we looked really tired, at least since I’ve been here.”
It happens, I suppose. It can’t keep happening with only 26 games left and a playoff berth still not in their grasp. Just two weeks ago, the Pistons lit the interest meter like they haven’t done in nearly a decade. After the initial juice comes the real sweat, and it would be a shame to waste it.