Yet there they were, sprinting out of the halftime locker room on an 18-4 tear to eventually stretch their lead to 10 points with less than three minutes left in the third quarter.
And all that against the Knicks, who’d won the season’s first three games by a combined 50 points and led at halftime by an average of 18.7 points. They eventually won by double digits again, though barely at 87-77, but how they got there was … well, weird.
It appeared headed to another blowout, the Knicks pulling out to a 15-point lead midway through the second quarter when the Pistons, as expected without Monroe (sprained left ankle, not believed serious) and Villanueva (sore left hamstring, also not expected to be a long-term injury), struggled to score.
But a flurry of scoring to open the third quarter with Jose Calderon (10 points, 16 assists) orchestrating, Kyle Singler and Jonas Jerebko bouncing with energy at the forward spots (seven points each in the quarter, 13 and 12 for the game) and Brandon Knight (11 points in the quarter after missing his first six shots in the first half) knocking down triples to put the Knicks – themselves playing without Carmelo Anthony and his 28 points a game – on their heels.
“The first five minutes of the third quarter we did some really good things,” assistant coach Brian Hill said – yeah, the Pistons were also missing their head coach, Lawrence Frank away to tend to a personal matter. “We talked about that at halftime, that the first five minutes of the third quarter, we have to be the aggressor, we have to be the best, most aggressive team on the floor.”
But after Knight’s third triple of the quarter put the Pistons ahead 65-55, the offense went cold as fast as it got hot. Ten straight possessions, the Pistons failed to score, spanning 6:33 of the third and fourth quarters. The Knicks went on a 16-0 run, followed immediately by an 8-0 Pistons run – followed immediately by a second 16-0 Knicks run that left the Pistons trailing 87-73 before scoring the game’s final four points.
The Knicks knocked down their first four 3-pointers in the first quarter, three of them by Iman Shumpert, one of the few Knicks you’d happily allow to launch them, then managed just four more in the middle two quarters. But they hit five in the fourth quarter, three from J.R. Smith.
Threes from Smith and Raymond Felton (28 points) on consecutive possessions cut the 10-point Pistons lead to four late in the third quarter, then triples on consecutive possessions by Smith, Jason Kidd and Smith again in the fourth quarter blew it open, turning a tie game into a nine-point Knicks lead with 4:15 to play.
“That’s kind of been the thing with New York all the times we’ve played them,” said Knight, who finished with 17 to lead the Pistons. “Their ability to hit big threes. They rely a lot on those shots and it got them back in the game tonight and eventually put them over the hump.”
“We had a 10-point lead there – wished we could’ve kept that going into the fourth,” Jerebko said. “But they hit a couple of tough threes, came back and it was a tie game. A team like that gets hot and it’s tough to guard them.”
Smith scored 20 and Amare Stoudemire 22 as the Knicks outscored Detroit’s bench 50-11.
Then again, there wasn’t much of a bench left. With the injuries concentrated on his frontcourt, Hill had to stretch the minutes of Jason Maxiell (37 as the starting center) and Jerebko (27) and steal some minutes from Singler at power forward while using Slava Kravtsov in reserve for 13 minutes. Hill only dipped three deep into his bench, Will Bynum and Rodney Stuckey the two others.
New York’s offensive rebounding against the makeshift frontcourt allowed for 17 Knicks second-chance points. The Pistons also didn’t get much out of the 11 first-quarter turnovers the Knicks committed, trailing 24-19 heading to the second quarter. But given the hand they were dealt, it was tough to find fault with a group that at full strength has matched up poorly with the Knicks all season.
“I told our guys after the game, I have nothing negative to say,” Hill said. “I thought they gave us every ounce of energy they could possibly give us. With the eight guys we played, we needed contributions from everybody tonight. Everybody gave us the effort. We didn’t get great production from everybody, but we got great effort. I can’t fault our guys.”