Pistons drop second straight to Hawks
AUBURN HILLS -- Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings are supposed to be the building blocks for the next great Pistons team.
Friday night, they showed that there is a lot of work to do.
Smith was yanked from the starting lineup after missing Thursday's practice, then had his first scoreless game since he was a 19-year-old rookie in 2004.
Jennings dished out 14 assists, but turned the ball over four times in the final eight minutes and missed 12 of his 16 field-goal attempts. The duo combined for eight points in 58 minutes of action.
Even after all that, the Pistons led the game with 3:30 to play. Jennings, though, had several mistakes down the stretch -- Smith never came off the bench -- and Atlanta pulled away to win 96-89.
"You aren't going to recover if you turn the ball over late in a close game," Maurice Cheeks said. "I liked the way we played, but we just turned the ball over down the stretch."
Unlike the Roundball Revolution during John Kuester's tenure, where several players boycotted a shootaround, Smith's situation doesn't seem to have been any kind of intentional drama. The Pistons had played on Tuesday and Wednesday, and 99 percent of the time, that means a day off on Thursday, especially with the second game of the back-to-back having been on the road.
Smith, who played the first nine seasons of his career with the Hawks, decided to stay in Atlanta Wednesday night instead of flying back to Detroit on the team plane. That became a problem when Cheeks, unhappy with the team's performance in the loss in Atlanta, decided to practice on Thursday.
"There's nothing in the NBA rules against practicing on the day after a back-to-back," he said. "I called it late and Josh didn't make it. He did know about it, and that's why he didn't start."
Smith had already left the locker room by the time Cheeks finished talking to the media, so it wasn't clear why he had spent the extra time in Atlanta. However, Hawks center Al Horford, a close friend of Smith's from their years playing together, said that Smith's father is ill.
The punishment wasn't severe -- Smith entered the game midway through the first quarter and Cheeks said he hasn't lost his starting job going forward -- but he struggled during his 20 minutes of action. He missed all seven of his shots, and although he did have seven rebounds, he was bench on the bench for the last nine minutes of a back-and-forth game.
In fact, Cheeks ditched his normal frontcourt combination of Smith, Monroe and Drummond entirely. The trio, who normally start and play in crunch time, only saw action together for the final 2.3 seconds of the first half.
Part of that was because of Kyle Singler, who had a career-high 22 points after moving into the lineup a few minutes before the opening tip, but Cheeks didn't give a clear answer to why he played little-used Josh Harrellson for 11 minutes.
"There was no reason that those three didn't play together -- I was just happy with the way our 3-4-5 combinations were working," he said. "Josh is still one of our top players. Things just happen."
The Pistons only trailed 82-79 with eight minutes left, and the Hawks were struggling to make shots, but Jennings went 1-for-6 with four turnovers down the stretch. Even when he did make a good play, stripping Atlanta's Jeff Teague at midcourt, it turned into a disaster.
Teague blocked Jennings' breakaway layup from behind, got the rebound from Paul Millsap and threw an alley-oop pass to Horford, making it 94-89 with 1:31 to play.
"That was a big play, because we had a chance to make it a one-point game, and they turned it right around and made it five," Cheeks said. "It is tough to overcome things like that at the end of a game."
That was the story of the night. Atlanta only shot 43.5 percent and turned the ball over 15 times, but the Pistons just never put together a consistent stretch in order to take advantage.
"It's very disappointing, because we played tough, but we didn't make plays and they got to every 50-50 ball," Singler said. "I felt like I had a great shooting game, but that doesn't matter when you don't win."
The Pistons have done that too many times already in a 4-8 start, which is why Singler hadn't minded the extra practice on Thursday.
"We need to practice," he said. "I thought it was something we really needed."
Next time, though, they need to make sure everyone is on the same page.