With a 2-game lead and a tiebreaker advantage over the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference playoff chase, the Atlanta Hawks had a golden opportunity to put themselves in fantastic position with a win over the Detroit Pistons. Unfortunately, they didn't perform like a team with anything to play for, and in the end, they dropped a 102-95 decision on Tuesday night.
The night began with the ominous (and late) absence of former Hawks forward Josh Smith, but despite that apparent hole on Detroit's front line, the Pistons were able to dominate the glass for the duration of the early going. Detroit snatched 5 offensive rebounds in the first 3 minutes of clock time, and as a result, they raced to a 14-6 advantage that was littered by easy baskets.
From there, the Hawks clamped down a bit, but the first half was still marred by the fact that Atlanta was crushed on the glass. The Pistons won the rebounding battle 29-17 in the first 24 minutes, and despite a tremendous effort from Paul Millsap (16 points on 6-6 FG, 6 rebounds) before halftime, that edge (along with a 3-for-14 showing from 3-point distance by Atlanta) kept Detroit at a distance. The Hawks did generate a 9-0 run (that included Kyle Korver's 1500th career 3-pointer) in the middle of the 2nd quarter, but despite that, the Pistons held a 58-52 advantage at the break.
Post halftime, the Hawks allowed Detroit to build a 10-point lead in the opening minutes, but that was short-lived, as the comeback was brewing. Kyle Korver helped to pulse a 14-0 run that allowed Atlanta to take a 71-67 lead less than 3 minutes after trailing by 10, and while Detroit followed with a quick, 6-0 spurt of their own, the Hawks were still able to chop the 6-point halftime lead in half in the 3rd. In addition, the Hawks (smartly) deployed a mini "Hack-A-Drummond" strategy on Detroit's center, as they sent him to the line 10 times in the period (after fouling him on virtually every post touch) and he was only able to convert 4 times.
Inexplicably, though, the Hawks would never again grab the lead. Reserve guard Peyton Siva sparked the Pistons offense with 7 points in the final quarter, and while the game was hotly contested until the final minutes, the Hawks couldn't ever get over the hump. Andre Drummond continued his terrorization of the Atlanta front line with a block at one end and a tip-in on the other to put the Pistons up 96-91 with less than 90 seconds to play, and when Jeff Teague missed an open three at the other end, the loss was all but mathematical.
Paul Millsap was easily the best player on the floor for the Hawks in this one, scoring 24 points (including the aforementioned 16 in the first half) and snatching 11 rebounds to go along with 4 assists and 2 steals. Unfortunately, his showing wasn't enough to off-set ugly nights from DeMarre Carroll (8 points, 2-10 FG, 0-5 3-PT) and Kyle Korver (4-16 FG) and a huge performance from both Drummond (19 points, 17 rebounds) and Rodney Stuckey (29 points).
There were highlights, including Korver's milestone three and Elton Brand becoming just the 110th player in NBA history to appear in 1,000 games, but frankly, this is an inexcusable loss. Detroit has absolutely nothing to play for at this stage and Atlanta played listless basketball for the better part of 48 minutes in a game that they could easily end up needing in the playoff race. The Hawks have a quick turnaround with a rare back-to-back in Philips Arena against the Boston Celtics, and now, they will be in desperate need of a victory as the lead has dwindled to just 1.5 games over the idle Knicks.