AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Emeka Okafor wasn’t exactly prepared for his all-star break to begin so soon. Okafor was having one of his best performances of the season, notching team highs of 20 points and nine rebounds in just three quarters of work to help the Washington Wizards enter the final period with a slim lead over the Detroit Pistons.
But with a towel draped over his shoulder, Okafor was left to simply have a front row seat as Pistons reserve point guard Will Bynum had his way with the Wizards’ uncharacteristically porous defense, taking advantage of their breakdowns to orchestrate a dominant finish with his speed, passing and ability to make shots. The Wizards aided the Pistons by fouling jump shooters, getting confused on rotations, and collecting as many turnovers as field goals (four) in the fourth quarter as their four-game win streak came to an end during a 96-85 loss at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
Using a mostly small lineup, led by the diminutive and crafty Bynum, the Pistons outscored the Wizards, 31-17, with Okafor sidelined and the veteran center was disappointed that he wasn’t allowed to contribute.
“I always want to be out there, no matter what game. It just wasn’t there,” Okafor said, matter-of-factly. “It was a tough one. Needed this one, but they outplayed us.”
The Wizards (15-36) are now 0-3 against the Pistons this season but they looked nothing like the team that visited the Pistons on Dec. 22, got slaughtered 100-68, and forced Coach Randy Wittman to apologize to fans and owner Ted Leonsis for the performance.
On that night, the Wizards didn’t have John Wall, Nene, Bradley Beal, Trevor Ariza, Trevor Booker and A.J. Price, and needed to score five points in the final 90 seconds to avoid setting a new franchise record for fewest points in a game. The Wizards lost in the second meeting, despite the return of Beal and Nene. And with all five of those players back for the third game, the Wizards wanted to finally claim a victory against a team that has controlled them throughout the season.
“Yeah, we wanted to get back. As competitors, you always want to get back at somebody that beat you pretty bad,” Ariza said after the Wizards fell to 1-15 on the road against Eastern Conference opponents. “We let one slip.”
The Wizards led 70-65 after Ariza made two free throws to start the fourth quarter, but the Pistons responded with an 11-0 run sparked by Bynum. Bynum made a driving layup, then found Charlie Villanueva for a three-pointer and reserve Chris Singleton fouled him to set up a rare four-point play. Bynum made another floater and threw a lob to backup center Viacheslav Kravtsov, who dunked to give the Pistons a 76-70 lead.
Nene made a hook, then Ariza had back-to-back layups to quickly tie the score, but Bynum then led another push of 11 unanswered points to put the Wizards away. Singleton fouled him on a long jumper, then he made a pull-up jumper, drove around Wall for layup and found newly acquired point guard Jose Calderon in the corner for a three-pointer. Calderon finished with a game-high 24 points and six three-pointers
Wittman called a timeout to calm down his team, but the Pistons’ barrage continued. Kyle Singler made two free throws, then Wall finally answered with two free throws, only to have Bynum hit Villanueva at the top of the key for another three-pointer.
“They did what we’ve been doing: spacing the court and having shooters out there,” Wall said after scoring 16 points with nine assists. “Will Bynum did a great job. Had a spark for them, coming off pick-and-rolls and getting into the paint. They got whatever shot they wanted.”
Bynum had 20 points and eight assists off the bench, with 12 points and five assists coming in the fourth quarter, when the Pistons shot 56.3 percent from the field. Wittman responded to the small lineup by going smaller, replacing Singleton with Martell Webster rather than Okafor down the stretch.
“Looking back on it, it was a situation that they went small,” Wittman said, when asked if he contemplated inserting Okafor in the fourth quarter. “Probably have to pull Nene and put him in. I thought about it, yeah. . . . This is a game, going into the fourth quarter ahead; these are the games we’ve been pulling out. It’s a little disappointing. To give up 31 in the fourth, tough to pull out a win.”
Nene, Ariza and Beal had 10 points apiece, but Beal didn’t score in the second half, missing all six of his field goal attempts, including an airball from three-point range.
“Second half, I wasn’t aggressive enough,” Beal said. “We made dumb mistakes on both ends of the floor. Times, we were out of rotation, got confused a couple of times, went brain dead, so to speak. And on offense, we couldn’t make a shot. It was just one of those games, I guess.”
Beal came off the bench behind Garrett Temple for the third consecutive game since returning from a sprained right wrist, with Wittman looking to not disrupt a rotation that has been working in recent weeks. A change might be in order when the team returns to action on Tuesday against Toronto.
“It’s the little things that beat us,” Webster said. “I’m disappointed. I wanted to get the win. We didn’t get it. It’s over now. We have to go rejuvenate ourselves and recharge our batteries and come back flying.”