AUBURN HILLS — If the Pistons season could be summed up by a single game, Wednesday might be the one.
Detroit led by 16 points going into the fourth quarter and by nine with 3:38 to play, but never scored another point and lost 97-96 on Dion Waiters’ baseline jumper as time expired.
As the shot fell, Waiters turned and ran toward the Cleveland locker room before being mobbed by his teammates. At the same time, Pistons players were shaking their heads at seeing another fourth-quarter lead slip away.
"I had a hand in his face, and he just hit a great contested shot," said Brandon Jennings, who went 0-for-4 in the fourth quarter, including two key misses in the last 68 seconds. "We just had too many bad possessions down the stretch. They got aggressive against our pick-and-roll and we just started rushing things."
In the long run, the loss might be better for the Pistons, who need to stay behind Cleveland in the standings to have any realistic chance of keeping their first-round pick. A win would have tied Detroit and the Cavaliers for the eighth and ninth spots, and if the Pistons don’t end up in the top eight after the lottery, they have to send the first-round choice to Charlotte to complete last year’s Ben Gordon-for-Corey Maggette trade.
That doesn’t mean the Pistons are playing to lose, though. John Loyer shortened his rotation in the second half to keep his top players on the floor, and it paid off with a 31-point third quarter. That made it 82-66, but that turned out to be another mirage for the NBA’s worst fourth-quarter team.
"It is something different every time," said Pistons coach John Loyer. "If there was a simple explanation as to why this keeps happening, we would have fixed it a long time ago. Tonight, they got stops in the fourth quarter, they got rebounds, and they hit big shots. We didn’t do any of those things."
Detroit shot 31.6 percent in the fourth quarter to Cleveland’s 60 percent, and the Cavaliers made things worse by hitting five 3-pointers in 10 attempts. Four of those, from Jarrett Jack and Matthew Dellavedova, keyed the comeback that cut the margin to 96-90 with two minutes to play.
Jack kept scoring, hitting a baseline jumper and then knocking down a floater while being fouled to give him eight straight points. In the meantime, Detroit was settling for bad jumpers and missing them — they went 0-for-5 in the last three minutes.
"We didn’t move the ball the way we had been through the first three quarters," Loyer said. "That ended up having to take some tough shots that we didn’t knock down. Our guys played their hearts out, but they didn’t do enough of the little things."
After Jennings missed a 10-footer with 3.2 seconds to play, Loyer and Mike Brown engaged in an extended battle of wits. The two coaches called four straight timeouts before Luol Deng found Waiters in the right corner for the game-winner.
"We knew they were going to call one of two or three plays at the end, and the first time, they ran the play we expected, so we called time out," Loyer said. "The last time, they ran one of the other plays we had discussed, so we were ready, but they knocked down the shot."
Detroit now faces Miami on Friday, with the Bad Boys reunion scheduled for halftime, then plays back-to-back games against the worst two teams in the NBA, Philadelphia and Milwaukee.