It used to be that the fourth quarter was winning time for the Pistons. On Monday night, the Clippers showed that for now, the fourth quarter and winning belong to them.
Up until then, it was a close game, with the Pistons trailing by just three heading into the final frame. But the Clippers dialed up the intensity and held the Pistons to just 16 points, earning an 88-76 victory, their 10th straight, in front of 13,560 at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
"We know the fourth quarter is played completely different than the other three," Pistons coach Lawrence Frank said. "This is a playoff team now, and they get it. It's played harder, tougher, more intense and smarter. That's when we have to be more precise with how we do things, especially when you're going up against pressure.
"Your screenings have to be great, your set-ups have to be good, the timing has to be precise, the pacing with which you play have to be right. You have to know it's going to be harder."
Rookie Andre Drummond, who had seven points, six rebounds and three blocked shots, acknowledged that the Pistons were not able to answer the Clippers' late challenge.
"In the fourth quarter our offense got a little stagnant," Drummond said. "They turned on that playoff mentality that they have and stepped up their defense and kind of shut us down a little bit and made their run in the fourth quarter."
The loss was the Pistons' fifth in a row. Their record is 7-20, the same was it was through 27 games last season.
Reminders of the Pistons' past glory were everywhere. Chauncey Billups, the 2004 NBA Finals MVP, was in street clothes on the Clippers' bench, nursing a sore foot. He was joined by Grant Hill, who has a bone bruise in his right knee. In the stands was Ben Wallace, the four-time Defensive Player of the Year.
Billups, Wallace and current Piston Tayshaun Prince got together Sunday night, no doubt talking about the good old days.
Instead of that, after the game Prince had to talk about whether these young Pistons are actually improving.
"When you play up and down, nobody's getting better," Prince said. "Veterans, young guys, it doesn't matter who it is. When you play up one game, down three or four games, back and forth, you're not getting better. So you have to play consistently, win or lose.
"It seems like we're in a trend that for 48 minutes we're not playing hard and with a lot of energy every possession. Can't take possessions off, especially against younger teams that thrive off turnovers and things like that that get them going. To answer your question, none of us are getting better if we don't continue to play consistently night in and night out, no matter if we win or lose."
It sounds harsh but Prince is right. He knows better because he experienced being on a team that knew how to close out games, knew how to grind its way to victory even on a long road trip.
"We are learning how to win together when things are not going perfect and we have to find a way and (Monday night) things definitely were not perfect but we found a way," Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. "Guys gutted it out. We got a lot of good performances from a lot of guys. Everyone stepped up at a certain time."
Those are the kind of things the Pistons used to say and want to be able to say soon. But it's not easy when some of your best players are just 19, 21 and 22 years old (Drummond, Brandon Knight and Greg Monroe).
Prince is now the veteran charged with helping those young players learn what it takes to win in the NBA.
"You have to keep harping it and keep harping it and stay on them about it," Prince said. "I think the most important thing about right now is trying to get them out of that zone as far as being in the situation where it gets in that fourth quarter and everybody's like, 'Here we go again.' That's the tough part. It's challenging but (we) just gotta keep working at it. Until we get better at it, we're going to keep having games like this."