My Detroit Sports: My Pistons Report #3

The third My Pistons Report finds Detroit fighting for their playoff lives. Basketball is a game of runs both in the standings and in the games themselves. That’s why teams are never as good, or bad, as any particular stretch might indicate. Having started 13-8 with 2 All-Star performers, the Pistons had an opportunity to secure just their second playoff appearance over the last decade. However, an injury to Ish Smith an a tough schedule led to a 7-17 swoon that lands them a game and a half behind the Charlotte Hornets.

Blake Griffin knocked off his former team this month in his return against the Clippers, but not without controversy in what appeared to be a slight to owner, Steve Balmer. Griffin confirmed later, that he doesn’t change his routine sprint to the locker room for anyone.

In assessing where things went wrong, it’s important to look at the home and road splits. The Pistons are a winning team at home (13-11) and a losing team on the road (7-14). Since the start of December they are 3-10 away from Little Caesars Arena. The road woes have shown some of the Pistons weaknesses. While Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond have put up All-Star caliber numbers, it hasn’t been enough. It’s understandable that adding a playmaker like Blake would impact Andre’s stats and role, and to date the pairing has worked well, but Andre’s assists have fallen from 3.0 to 1.2 and his effective field goal percentage is at a career low of .501. The rest of the Pistons have, save for Reggie Bullock and more recently Luke Kennard, been ineffective from the field as well. The inside/out game is generating a sufficient number of looks with the Pistons ranking 10th in 3 pointers attempted, but they’re only hitting at a 33.3% clip which is next to last in the league. It’s not much better within the arc with Detroit ranking 25th on two point attempts. The Pistons defensive efforts put them near the top third of the league and their offense is on par with franchises angling for a top lottery pick. That’s why a team with two All-Stars plays reasonably at home but falters on the road. As Charles Barkley famously said: role players play better at home. Beyond the dreadful offensive stats, the Pistons also have lost some heartbreaking games in the final minutes. Whether or not Buddy Hield double dribbled, his last second off balance shot undid a game the Pistons led most of the way. The Pistons have also lost in the final seconds to the Hornets, Bucks, and Magic. On a positive note, the other 2 games on their recent homestand were tightly contested in the final minutes with the Pistons coming out on top in overtime against the Magic and avoiding overtime on Dwyane Wade’s missed game tying 3 point attempt. The Pistons have also been suffering without the injured Ish Smith. In a way, the Pistons struggles parallel those of the New Orleans Pelicans. Both teams have winning records with Ish Smith and Elfrid Payton respectively. Injuries to both players have left on the outside edge of the playoff race. The Pistons are 15-10 with Ish Smith in the lineup, and 5-10 without. Admittedly playing under 2 minutes against the Heat last week did not likely sway the result, but there’s no question that he provides an offensive spark and steadies the second unit. He has a positive plus/minus (with one neutral) in 16 of 24 games.

Glenn Robinson III and co. said, “good-bye” to one of the game’s greats in Dwyane Wade on Friday at Little Caesars Arena against Miami Heat.

So where does that leave Detroit going forward? Luke Kennard scoring in double figures in 9 of the last 13 games is encouraging. Bruce Brown has definitely carved out a nice role and a lot of minutes. However, they need more shooting. That means that either Stanley Johnson, Reggie Jackson, or Langston Galloway have to provide more on the offensive end. There’s also the potential that Jon Leuer (still shaking off rust) or Glenn Robinson III (career .365 3 point shooter) earn more minutes. The trade deadline is rapidly approaching and it’s unclear if there are any difference makers, e.g. a Bradley Beal or Dennis Smith Jr., that will be both available on the market and available for the Pistons to acquire. Adding Isaiah Whitehead and former Spartan Kalin Lucas to two way spots is not the answer. Both play point guard and minutes at that position are sparse with Jose Calderon providing stability when Jackson and Smith are on the bench. Some of the improvement has to come from within.

Looking at the standings and upcoming games, things don’t get much easier. The Pistons play the league leading Bucks and have 5 games against Western Conference foes before getting a home and home set against the Knicks and a road game in Boston heading into the All-Star break. 4 and a half games separate the Nets in the 6th seed from the Magic in 11th. 38-40 wins may be all it takes to secure a playoff spot. That just requires a 21-15 finish, which is much easier than it sounds. Every game counts in a year where parity reigns and 25 of the 30 teams hold onto realistic playoff aspirations. Time to go on another run.

My Detroit Sports: My Pistons Report #2

The Pistons have had a busy month having played 9 of their last 14 games at Little Caesars Arena. It was a month with more highs than lows, and with games against both the title contenders and ping pong ball collectors. Now more than 25% of the way through the season there is a clearer picture of who is playing for what in the Eastern Conference. At 13-8, the Pistons are in the middle of the pack and fighting for home court advantage in the first round.

Part of what has helped shape the Eastern Conference landscape is the blockbuster trade that saw All-Star Jimmy Butler head east from Minnesota to Philadelphia. Adding the third all-star piece has solidified the Sixers as one of the top teams in the conference and given them a better chance of making the Finals. MVP candidates Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo have lead the Raptors and Bucks to the top of the standings. At the same time, Victor Oladipo has been hurt and the Celtics have struggled to integrate Gordon Hayward into their offense. With Oladipo coming back and Hayward shaking off some rust off the bench recently, the Celtics and Pacers have better basketball ahead of them. Kemba Walker and Nikola Vucevic have lead the Hornets and Magic to the edge of the playoff race. With the all the drama and speculation regarding the Wizards, not to mention the injury to Dwight Howard, it will be difficult for Washington to re-enter the playoff picture. What does this mean for the Pistons? Of the current Eastern Conference lottery teams, only Miami looks to have the potential to enter into the playoff picture. Detroit needs every win they can get to avoid sliding down in the standings but look poised to end a 10+ year streak of 0 wins in the playoffs.

It would have been hard to predict that the outlook would be so rosy at the beginning of November. The month got off to a slow start with a tough loss in Philadelphia to end the road trip. Blake Griffin didn’t quite match his previous performance but still put up a monster 38/13/6 line in the loss. The losing streak extended to 5 with a heartbreaking overtime loss to the Heat. Andre Drummond’s pair of tip shots with under 20 seconds left, plus two missed free throws by Dwyane Wade, helped the Pistons overcome a late deficit and force overtime.

Sadly, Drummond’s 25 point/24 rebound performance went to waste. He would score exactly 23 points as part of double double’s the next 3 games as the Pistons won both games on the road against the suddenly respectable Orlando Magic and the very much rebuilding Atlanta Hawks before losing a lackluster game at home to the Hornets on 36.5% shooting from the field.

That’s when the Pistons went to Toronto to face the league leading Raptors. If the season is a success, we will look back to this game as the point where the season turned around. Facing an 11 point deficit heading into the 4th, Reggie Jackson and Stanley Johnson helped turn the game into a nail biter. Each scored 8 points as part of a 17-5 run that turned an 11 point deficit into a 1 point lead. The Pistons kept on attacking and grinding even after consecutive baskets by Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard tied the game at 104. They got the stops and a beautiful basket by Reggie Bullock at the buzzer to win the game. There was no doubt this was a game that Dwane Casey wanted. More importantly, it was a game the players wanted to win for him. You could see the joy on the faces of every member of the team.

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There’s no doubt that victory galvanized the team. The Pistons won 6 of their next 7 games before being blown out by the Oklahoma City Thunder last night. Granted, all 6 wins were at home, but there were plenty of positives to take from this hot stretch. First, they took care of business against the teams at the bottom of the standings. Wins over the Cavs, Suns, Knicks, and Bulls count just as much as a win over Toronto. Building on that momentum is key. Second, they weren’t all wins against likely lottery teams. Pistons won the second game of a home and home against the Houston Rockets. The first game featured James Harden putting the game away in the final minute at the free throw line. In Detroit, the script was flipped when rookie Bruce Brown was put on James Harden and the Pistons pulled away at the end of a close game. The Pistons also weathered the return of Stephen Curry, who has put on incredible performances coming off of injuries before, in a convincing win over the 2 time defending champion Golden State Warriors.

 

More importantly, the Pistons are starting to play better and shoot better from the field. Being ranked 21st on offense while maintaining a top 10 (9th) defense isn’t elite, but it shows improvement on multiple fronts. A combination of improved health and play from the supporting cast have fueled that improvement. Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond are playing at an All-Star level. Reggie Jackson and Reggie Bullock’s shooting is starting to regress back to the mean after a slow start. Contributions from the under 22 crowd with Stanley Johnson and Bruce Brown have helped provide much needed depth on a bench that combines a youth movement with veteran experience. On the health front, having everyone on the court and playing together will help develop the chemistry that has been lacking.

All of that will be needed to survive this next month. There are 15 games between now and January 3rd , 2019. 9 of those games are on the road where the Pistons are only 4-4 on the season. They also must face the Bucks, Sixers, and Hornets twice. There is also a home game against Boston and more matchups against good Western Conference teams like the Grizzlies, Timberwolves, and Pelicans. Only one game of the 15 is against a lottery team. A .500 or better record in these games would help solidify the Pistons in the standings. Struggle and it becomes a fight for a playoff spot.

My Detroit Sports have been at several Pistons games to capture all the action. Be sure to show your Pistons pride on Instagram (@mydetroitsports) and you could be eligible to win future giveaway prizes!