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The Pistons ended their two-game streak and played without Blake Griffin, who was held out due to rest. Rod Beard, The Detroit News

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Cleveland — Pistons coach Dwane Casey was well aware of the inclination. He cautioned his players about overlooking the struggling Cleveland Cavaliers, who were already eliminated from the playoff picture and seemingly don’t have much to play for.

Add in that the Pistons were resting Blake Griffin and the Cavs sitting Kevin Love and the danger turned into looking past the Cavaliers, to the western trip starting on Thursday.

Casey’s words came to fruition, as the Cavaliers stayed close in the first three quarters and kicked into another gear in the final minutes, taking a 126-119 victory on Monday night at Quicken Loans Arena.

BOX SCORE: Cavaliers 126, Pistons 119

The loss ends the Pistons’ two-game winning streak, as they head to the most daunting stretch of their remaining schedule, with a four-game western trip, including games at Phoenix, Portland, Golden State and Denver. The defeat also drops the Pistons to 36-34, with a one-game lead over the Brooklyn Nets for sixth place in the Eastern Conference playoff race. The Miami Heat, who won on Monday, moved within two games of the Pistons.

Defensive malaise was the biggest issue, as the Cavaliers shot 50 percent (11-of-22) on 3-pointers and got plenty of good looks inside the arc too. 

“Any time — I don’t care who it is — you allow them to shoot 58.2 percent from the floor, you’re not going to beat anybody,” Casey said. “Our defensive thought process, our execution was not there. Totally disappointed in myself, in our team, anybody in that locker room, in our defensive approach.”

Wayne Ellington had a season-high 25 points, including seven 3-pointers. Andre Drummond added 21 points, 21 rebounds and five assists and Reggie Jackson 15 points and four assists. But Griffin’s absence was felt on both ends of the court.

The Cavs (18-53) started the fourth quarter by making their first eight field goals, including three 3-pointers. The Pistons had an 88-87 lead, but it quickly evaporated, with a basket by Marquese Chriss (10 points, 10 rebounds) and Nik Stauskas, who had 17 points off the bench, added a 3-pointer.

More: Casey rests Griffin to set Pistons up for playoff run

Glenn Robinson III answered with a 3-pointer but Stauskas was fouled on a 3-point attempt and made all three free throws, part of his 15 fourth-quarter points.

Rookie Collin Sexton had nine points — all 3-pointers — of his 27 points in the fourth quarter and once the Cavaliers got rolling, it was hard to stop their momentum.

“We knew how talented Sexton was, we talked about how talented (Jordan) Clarkson was and we talked about how Stauskas could shoot it,” Casey said. “It was almost like it was a magnet on the 3-point line to come across and get into them and make them feel us on the 3-point shots.”

The Cavs led, 101-97, at the 8:27 mark, when Drummond returned after the Pistons played a smaller lineup, with Thon Maker as the center. They went on a 9-2 spurt and regained the lead, 106-103, with a pair of baskets from Drummond and a 3-pointer by Ellington.

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Ellington had a season-high 25 points, including seven 3-pointers, in the loss to the Cavs. Rod Beard, The Detroit News

The Cavs didn’t go away, with a jumper by David Nwaba (13 points) and a 3-pointer by Sexton to regain the lead.

In the final minutes, the Cavaliers rallied again, with back-to-back 3-pointers by Sexton and Cedi Osman (21 points) and they never gave up the lead after that.

“On the defensive end, we have to be better. Early on, they didn’t feel us physically and they played really physically and played really free, It came back to bite us at the end of the game,” Ellington said. “They had a whole lot of confidence and guys got it going and made some great shots. It comes from earlier in the game and the flow they played with and confidence.”

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Observations

1. The Pistons clearly missed Griffin and struggled to get their offense in a rhythm. They didn’t run much pick-and-roll with Jackson and Drummond and looked more to Ellington. While Maker provided some size inside on the defensive end, he didn’t bring much more on offense, with just seven points and nine rebounds.

2. Wayne Ellington was more effective on the offensive end, looking more aggressively for his shot. He was 7-of-13 on 3-pointers, which is somewhat typical, but he worked inside the arc, as well, looking to get drives and making the defenders stay honest.

3. The bench group came up big again, tallying 23 of the Pistons’ first 46 points. They nearly had four players in double figures, with Ish Smith (13 points), Langston Galloway (13), Luke Kennard (nine) and Glenn Robinson III (eight) making big contributions. It’s been the Pistons’ advantage of late, with multiple double-digit scorers in the reserve group and it was again, with Griffin out.

4. The Pistons went small with Maker as the center and Robinson as the big forward, with three guards. At the start of the fourth quarter, the Cavaliers were able to pull ahead and build their lead to 101-97 at the 8:27 mark against that smaller lineup. It’s been a rarity that the Pistons haven’t had either Drummond, Griffin or Pachulia on the floor — and their defensive struggles showed.

5. The Cavaliers starting backcourt of Collin Sexton and Brandon Knight combined for 43 points, including 27 from Sexton, who topped the 20-point plateau for the sixth straight game.

Rod.Beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard

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