Detroit Pistons analysis: Late-game issues start and end with defensive woes

CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 12: Blake Griffin #23 of the Detroit Pistons talks to head coach Dwane Casey during their game against the Charlotte Hornets at Spectrum Center on December 12, 2018 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

DETROIT – There's more than meets the eye when it comes to the Detroit Pistons in late, close games.

The Pistons have had some success late in games, especially early in the season, with close wins against the Nets, 76ers, Bulls and Raptors.

But as of late, the team has struggled to close the door or finish off a comeback rally in the fourth quarter.

Yes, Blake Griffin needs to hit his free throws. And yes, Reggie Jackson can't take wild drives to the hoop that result in a turnover.

But no -- the biggest problem for the Pistons in late game situations is not their offense. It's their defense.

Numbers don't lie

Here's a look at the Pistons offensive rankings in clutch situations, which is defined as the final five minutes of a game with a five-point or less differential:

  • Points: 11.5 (No. 4 in NBA)
  • Field goal shooting: 47 percent (No. 7)
  • Three point shooting: 47 percent (No. 1)
  • Free throw shooting: 82.5 percent (No. 6)
  • Rebounding: 4.2 (No. 5)

The Pistons somehow rank among the NBA's best in offensive clutch categories, and yet, the team is 8-11 in these situations, No. 22 in the NBA with a 42 percent winning percentage.

Here's a look at the Pistons defensive rankings in clutch situations:

  • Opponent field goal shooting: 49 percent (No. 27 in NBA)
  • Points allowed: 11.1 (No. 27)
  • Opponent three point shooting: 35.7 percent (No. 22)
  • Opponent assists: 2.2 (No. 29)

There are several examples of this playing out this season. Just last game, the Pistons almost blew a 22-point lead against the Wizards late in the fourth quarter. They recovered and posted 106 points, but Trevor Ariza shouldn't be dropping five three pointers on any team.

The Pistons had 24 turnovers and beat Washington. It's the most turnovers in a win for the Pistons since 2004. 

Against the Hornets last week, the Pistons were within three points with five minutes left, only to allow Kemba Walker and (wait for it) Marvin Williams to hit multiple clutch shots, finishing the Pistons off, 98-86.

The point is, we often look at a missed free throw or mistimed drive to the hoop as the deciding factors in late games. Although those plays are hugely important, as every point matters, their glaring fourth-quarter defensive lapses need a major fix.

The Pistons aren't built to outscore opponents. Getting into shooting contests late in games, without defending opposing shooters, is a losing battle for Detroit in almost every situation. 

More than 30 games in, Pistons still a mystery

The Pistons are 16-16 through 32 games this season. Although the team is currently the No. 6 seed in the NBA's Eastern Conference, they're only one game out of ninth place.

The predictable separation in the East has started to take shape, with Toronto, Milwaukee, Indiana, Philadelphia and Boston creating room between them and the bottom half of the conference.

Right now, the Pistons are battling the Hornets, Heat and Nets for the final three playoff spots. 

The streaky Pistons are still struggling to find a true identity, with big wins on their resume, rotating lineups, some injuries and late game defensive troubles.

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