The Detroit Pistons, on paper, did everything necessary offensively to win Monday night.
They scored 130 points, their fourth-highest total of the season, on 49.4% shooting and 40.6% from 3-point range.
Bojan Bogdanovic had one of his best games of the season, scoring 33 points on just 15 shots, and rookies Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren tallied double-doubles.
Instead, they were smeared with another ugly 150-130 blowout loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, largely because of the first five minutes. Milwaukee opened the game with a 28-8 run at Little Caesars Arena. The Pistons looked lethargic, as though they didn’t expect the 2021 champions, still led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, to come out of the locker room swinging.
PISTONS MAILBAG:Breaking down possible deals before NBA trade deadline
The Bucks (30-17, third in Eastern Conference) hit 12 of their first 13 shots and essentially put the game away with a 49-24 lead after the opening period. They led by as many as 33, and the Pistons only managed to get within 20 points the rest of the way. All of the Pistons’ issues this season — their poor defense, inconsistent quarter-to-quarter execution and lack of depth due to injury — were on display.
After getting blown out by 18 points by the Chicago Bulls in Paris last Thursday, the Pistons (12-37, second worst in the NBA) needed a pick-me-up. Instead, they got put down.
“The challenge is there’s no 31-point play,” Saddiq Bey, who scored 21 points, said after the Bucks game. “Just trying to cut it down possession-by-possession, it’s tough.
“We had a great scout plan, everybody had a lot of energy coming in. They were making a lot of shots. It’s hard to run, it’s hard to be in transition, it’s hard to rebound and those things that propel it, it’s hard to do that if we’re taking it out of the net every time. We’re trying to just learn to make it tough for them. Sometimes they’re going to make tough shots, but we can’t afford for them to shoot it the way they did to start off the game.”
The saving grace for the Pistons was the final margin wasn’t worse considering the poor start, thanks to improved play after the first quarter. But Monday was another discouraging loss in the midst of a season that has had far too many.
Most would expect the Pistons, who have been without Cade Cunningham since early November and were also without Marvin Bagley III, Killian Hayes and Isaiah Stewart on Monday, to struggle against a healthy Bucks team. Hayes and Stewart are two of the team’s only consistent defenders, and Hayes is the best healthy playmaker. The Bucks won a game they were supposed to win, and have defeated the Pistons in 16 of the past 17 regular season matchups.
SOMEBODY HELP:Detroit Lions almost made playoffs, but which Detroit team is truly closest?
Yet, the final 36 minutes of the game reflected that the Pistons can be a scrappy team and compete when they’re on the same page. They shot 54.5% in the second half, and Milwaukee shot 46.9%. Ivey (12 points, career-high 11 assists) and Duren (career-high 23 points, 14 rebounds, two blocks — much in garbage time) played two of their best games. Bogdanovic, the subject of trade talk, was one of the sole reasons the Pistons didn’t lose by 50, shooting 11-for-15 and six of seven on 3-pointers.
Cunningham’s injury robbed the team of a needed go-to scorer and orchestrator, but there’s another level the team can find without him. A lot of it starts on defense. Antetokounmpo is one of the NBA’s most unguardable players, and Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday and Brook Lopez are all talented scorers. Yet, the Pistons still gave up easy, preventable buckets in the first quarter.
The Pistons own the NBA’s second-worst defensive rating at 118.3 — points allowed per 100 possessions — only ahead of San Antonio. The Pistons are sometimes scrappy, but their lack of energy for a full 48 minutes has cost them a lot this season. A team starting two rookies will have defensive woes, and they also missed their top two defenders. But even with Stewart and Hayes, the Pistons have been challenged on that end of the floor.
It’s about pride and commitment, Pistons coach Dwane Casey said.
“It’s not like guys are not trying,” Casey said. “We’re there but we’re not there. There’s another level we gotta get to physically, getting into people and making them uncomfortable, and we did that in the second half. They made some tough shots, but we gotta set the tone to be in the game. Against a championship team like that, they’re going to put their stamp on the game pretty quick and they did.
“We gotta be the attacker, that’s what we talked about and we didn’t do it. That’s something we gotta learn how to do. My hat is off to our guys because they did scratch and claw, played even. We outscored them (after the first). You told me at the beginning of the game we’re going to score 130 points, you take that. But not to give up 150. I understand all that, we’re down men. That doesn’t matter. There’s another level of defensive pride that we have to have as an organization.”
Check out the latest episode of “The Pistons Pulse” podcast, embedded higher up in the story, with Free Press beat writer Omari Sankofa II and former Division I player and current analyst Bryce Simon. Listen on Apple, Spotify or wherever you load up podcasts.