DETROIT – It shouldn’t have mattered all that much. Maybe it was merely coincidence that you could trace the 180-degree swing in momentum directly to it. But when J.J. Redick converted a bad Pistons turnover – an errant backcourt pass off of a sideline-out-of-bounds play – into a 3-pointer two minutes into the third quarter, the game irrevocably turned.
The Pistons – missing three key players in Reggie Bullock, Ish Smith and Stanley Johnson – led by 15 at the moment and Philadelphia, playing without Joel Embiid, looked complacent and vulnerable.
But 30 seconds after the Pistons held a 15-point lead and the ball, the lead was down to nine after Jimmy Butler made the Pistons pay for a missed shot and lax transition defense with another triple.
Dwane Casey got a quick timeout after Butler’s basket, but it didn’t stop Philadelphia’s momentum. A 20-3 run turned that 15-point Pistons lead into a two-point deficit.
And after scoring 41 points in the second quarter – matching their season high for any quarter – the Pistons sputtered to a 43-point second half. Another Philadelphia run – 13-0 – wiped out a five-point deficit and sent the Pistons to a third straight loss, 117-111.
“Not an uh-oh moment,” Blake Griffin, whose pass meant for Reggie Jackson was picked off by Wilson Chandler and led to Redick’s three, “but that did start the run. Hindsight’s always 20-20. That definitely started it.”
Griffin grimaced angrily after Butler’s triple, stalked to the bench on Casey’s timeout and slapped an open hand on his seat before throwing himself into it.
It was also symbolic of the tailspin because turnovers – 18 for the game leading to 30 Philadelphia points, 10 for 18 points in the second half alone – were fatal.
“Turnovers – that’s the bottom line,” Casey said. “That’s what shot ourselves in the heel. (Eighteen) turnovers – it’s hard to beat anybody when you do that. Philadelphia’s a very good defensive team, but a lot of our turnovers were self-inflicted.”
“Turnovers,” Andre Drummond concurred. “Too many turnovers in that second half. Just gave up the ball too much.”
Bullock missed his second straight game with a left ankle sprain, his loss compounded when Johnson – listed as a starter – was a late scratch with knee soreness. Smith was diagnosed earlier in the day with a torn right adductor muscle that Casey says figures to sideline him at least three weeks and likely a month or longer.
The absence of Bullock and Johnson proved especially costly on defense against a team that causes matchup issues in the best of circumstances, more so since acquiring Jimmy Butler. Casey tried to match rookie Bruce Brown to Butler’s minutes and Brown played well despite Butler’s 38 points, 13 in the final 10 minutes.
“I thought Bruce did an admirable job,” Casey said. “Even though Butler got 38, I thought he worked for every one of them.”
The player who hurt the Pistons as much as anyone was backup center Mike Muscala, a perimeter threat who scored 15 of his 18 in the second half and hit three big triples. That was two more 3-pointers than the Pistons managed in the second half – in 13 tries. Their final 12 3-pointers were misses after Glenn Robinson III opened the third quarter with a triple that added on to their 12-point halftime lead. They shot 30 percent overall in their 43-point half.
“We had some great looks in the second half and just didn’t knock ’em down,” said Langston Galloway, who returned to Detroit on Friday after attending his grandmother’s funeral. “We had a little peak in the second half where we couldn’t get the ball in the basket and it really hurt us down the stretch.”
Griffin, who came into the game averaging 44 against Philadelphia in two games this season, was a force again with 31 points, 12 rebounds and six assists. He tied a career high with 24 free-throw attempts, but seemed as frustrated after the game as he’s been all season at the way the Pistons let an opportunity slip.
“Our disposition during those (critical) moments, our lack of focus, concentration coming out of timeouts, was really bad tonight,” he said. “That’s not winning basketball. That’s how you get beat and our record for the last three games has shown that.”
There’s no easy path out of their sudden malaise, either – not with their injury situation worsening and they schedule unrelenting. Next up: The Pistons host New Orleans and perpetual nemesis Anthony Davis on Sunday, then hit the road for a back to back with the same 76ers on Monday.
“Nothing’s easy in this league,” Casey said. “Nothing’s going to be given to you.”