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Hot-Shooting Pistons Overwhelm Flat Clippers, 108-97

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The Clippers struggled in a winnable game, and ended up with their third loss of the season.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a well-known fact that first-place teams have targets on their back. Every team gets up to prove themselves against the top team in the standings, and it’s up to the league leaders to defend against that every night if they want to keep their position.

Tonight, a disciplined but injured Pistons team took their best shot at the Clippers in Detroit, and they got a hit and sunk the ship.

Despite still missing starting point guard Reggie Jackson, suspending Stanley Johnson for a violation of team rules, and learning that Reggie Bullock tore his knee meniscus, the Pistons didn’t miss a beat tonight: they were sharp on offense, feeling out the Clippers’ scheme and taking advantage of any errors. Defensively, the Pistons weren’t dominant but they were good, forcing the Clippers to work and holding LA under 100 points for the first time in over three weeks.

I wrote in today’s game preview that the Piston’s balanced scoring presented a unique challenge for the Clippers, who would need good individual defense at every position while not being able to lean heavily on Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. When the final horn sounded, Marcus Morris led Detroit with 17 points, while Andre Drummond, Ish Smith, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope each contributed 16, and Tobias Harris chipped in with 15. Jon Leuer also added 11 off the bench, and each of those six guys carried Detroit’s offense through different challenging stages of the game.

On the Clippers’ side, balance was nowhere to be found. J.J. Redick and Blake Griffin each scored 24 points, but 18 of Redick’s came in the third quarter while Griffin’s high point total betrays his overall struggles, as he missed several close shots, shot just 9-17 from the field, and grabbed only 3 rebounds. The only other double-digit scorers were DeAndre Jordan with 12 points and Jamal Crawford with 14. Jordan had a good game all-around, going head to head with Andre Drummond and playing active defense, but Crawford was abysmal, shooting 4-12 from the floor and tanking several important possessions with poor shot selection.

Elsewhere, the Clippers were either poor or nonexistent individually. Chris Paul shot just 2-9 from the field while Marreese Speights missed all but one of his seven shot attempts, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Raymond Felton, Austin Rivers, and Wesley Johnson were each somewhat invisible on the offensive end outside of one or two nice plays.

Wesley Johnson made a positive impact on the second unit defensively, but it wasn’t enough to help that lineup be effective tonight. Johnson’s activity resulted in several deflections, blocks, and rebounds, winning possessions for the Clippers, but the second unit as a whole still fell apart in the fourth quarter as the Clippers ceded control of the game.

The Clippers’ starters went on an impressive run in the middle of the third quarter, causing Doc Rivers to play them for longer than usual to end that period. J.J. Redick played the entire period, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan sat for just 25 seconds each, and Chris Paul earned 1:02 of rest. As a result, the second unit played extended minutes together in the final frame, turning a two-point deficit into a brief two-point lead before allowing a 10-2 run, giving Detroit momentum and forcing the starters to climb another hill upon their return.

Ultimately, the core four (playing with Jamal Crawford) were unable to do just that, as Detroit’s lead would only stretch, with the final margin resting at 11 points. Marcus Morris had a total of 11 fourth quarter points while Luc Richard Mbah a Moute sat and watched, and timely three-point shots by Morris, Caldwell-Pope, and Smith stymied any potential Clipper heroics.

Overall, this is the Clippers’ worst loss of the young season—but that’s not saying much when there are only three candidates. While the Pistons are currently under .500, they won’t stay there, and the Clippers still have yet to lose to a team that is likely to miss the playoffs.

It’s a shame to lose opportunities against winnable opponents, and fail to keep pace at the top of the NBA standings. The Clippers are still in an incredibly rough portion of their schedule, and they’ll make up ground late in the season, but every game counts, and it hurts to lose games because of coming out flat. One has to now question the team’s decision to stay in Dallas an extra day to attend the Cowboys game instead of getting to Detroit a day earlier to stay rested and focused.

It would be irresponsible to not conclude this recap with one last mention of the talented and disciplined team that won this game. Stan Van Gundy has the Pistons firing on all cylinders, and even without their best player and two rotation subs on the wing, they executed their schemes to perfection on both ends, out rebounded the Clippers, turned the ball over just 10 times, and most importantly, made shots when they needed to. After 48 minutes of that, they managed to hand the most impressive team of the young season their first road loss—congrats to that banged-up group on an impressive, well played game.

Now, the Clippers must continue this season-long six-game road trip in Indiana on Sunday, where they’ll face a similarly struggling Eastern Conference playoff team playing without their star. Hopefully the Clippers will take advantage of Paul George’s absence to defeat the Pacers and right the ship heading into the second-half of the trip.