AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — How does a team survive without its starting backcourt and top two scorers?
“I don’t think you can,” Byron Scott said while sort of staring into space and talking to no one in particular. “I don’t think you can.”
Such was life for the coach and his Cavaliers in their 89-79 defeat Monday at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
The Cavs were already without reigning NBA Rookie of the Year and point guard Kyrie Irving — who’s nursing a broken left index finger. Then, just before tip-off, it was announced rookie guard Dion Waiters would skip the game with a sprained left ankle.
Waiters injured the ankle in last weekend’s double-overtime loss to Portland. He’s averaging 15.2 points, second on the team to Irving’s 22.9. Perhaps more importantly, Irving is at 26.5 points in Cavs wins, and Waiters at 20.5.
Without them … well, you get the picture.
The Pistons sure did, racing to a 22-point lead and limiting the Cavs to 29 percent shooting in the first half. That’s the kind of stuff that makes the rim cringe with fear and race home to mommy.
Yet the sapped Cavs (4-14) somehow made a game of it late, cutting the deficit to six points (85-79) with 1:39 left.
And that, folks, was all she wrote.
“I thought our guys competed,” Scott said. “We couldn’t score, but we did a heck of a job defensively, especially in the second half.”
As usual, that was particularly true of Anderson Varejao, the do-everything center who proves to be among the league’s most improved players and best big men on a daily basis.
Not even a slow start could keep Varejao from amassing his ninth consecutive double-double, leading the team with 17 points, 18 rebounds and countless floor burns from chasing loose balls and battling in the paint.
But the Cavs clearly missed the distribution skills of Waiters (an underrated aspect of the rookie’s game), with most perimeter shots not dropping, and the Pistons clogging things inside because of it.
Still, as Scott mentioned, the fight remained, and if anything, that’s been a staple of this mostly young team so far.
“I just keep telling the guys, ‘We’re talented,'” said veteran guard Daniel Gibson. “But the only way it’s going to show is if we come every single night with the mind frame to outwork the other team.”
Most nights, the Cavs have been doing that.
Most nights, not even that has worked.
On this night, the Cavs had virtually no chance. On the bright side, they never believed that. On the down side, they were wrong.
“We can’t just beat teams by showing up,” Gibson said. “That’s something that we’re learning. We’re capable of beating anybody. Once Kyrie gets back, we have to understand that we can play with and beat anybody in this league.”
Scott started Omri Casspi at small forward and shifted normal starter Alonzo Gee to shooting guard. It took the Cavs a half to adjust (understandably so), with the Pistons pumping to a first-quarter lead of 30-17.
It was 75-63 at the end of the third quarter, and as Scott hinted, the Cavs had every reason to just mail it in. Instead, Varejao only got better, scoring nine of his points and grabbing seven of his rebounds in the final 12 minutes.
“We got more focused, more aggressive from the second quarter on,” Scott said. “We seemed to kind of get them off balance a little bit. It really helped get us back in the game. We just couldn’t convert at the offensive end.”
Casspi, Jeremy Pargo and Tristan Thompson added 10 points apiece, with Thompson hauling in 11 boards.
The Pistons (6-13) were led by Brandon Knight’s 17 points. Tayshaun Prince and rookie surprise Kyle Singler each tacked on 15, and Greg Monroe grabbed 14 rebounds.
The Pistons have won six of 11 since starting 0-8.
Perhaps soon, the determined Cavs can have a similar turnaround. But it will likely take the return of Irving and Waiters — or at least one of them, anyway.
• Irving has been cleared for all but contact drills at practice. He’s likely to miss at least another week.
• The Pistons are last in the league in attendance at just less than 12,400 per game. Monday’s announced crowd was 11,352 — but it was more like half that number.
• The Pistons blocked seven shots in the first quarter and 13 for the game. “It definitely gives (the guards) more confidence to pressure the ball,” Knight said.