By: Will Burchfield
Just a few days ago, the Pistons were one of the hottest teams in basketball. They had won five straight games on the heels of the Blake Griffin trade and were closing the gap on the 76ers for the final playoff spot in the East. A postseason berth seemed likely.
In the span of a weekend, the good vibes went poof.
The Pistons lost Friday’s grudge match versus the Clippers and then dropped a gimme on Sunday versus the Hawks. Entering play Monday night, they are 27-28 and two games behind Philadelphia for the eighth seed in the East. But remember: The 76ers own the tiebreaker over the Pistons. So that two-game deficit is really three.
The question is simple: Can Detroit make up three games on Philadelphia over the final two months of the season?
The answer is foggy at best: Ehhhh.
The Pistons have 27 games remaining. 26 are evenly split between teams above .500 and teams below .500, with one coming against the 28-28 Jazz (on the road). Perhaps more significant is that 15 of their final 27 games are away from home, where the Pistons are 9-17 on the season. In March, the month that will likely determine Detroit’s fate, the team plays 10 of its 15 games on the road.
So that’s what lies ahead. Now consider the outlook for the 76ers.
Philadelphia, 28-25, has 29 games remaining, 18 of which come against teams below .500. And of those 18, a juicy 12 come against the decaying remains of the Hawks, the Magic, the Nets, the Bulls and the Kristaps Porzingis-less Knicks — the five worst teams in the East. Throw in three more against the Hornets, the conference’s next-worst team, and one each against the Grizzlies and the Suns, and the 76ers have 17 low-hanging wins ahead of them.
They play 15 of their final 29 on the road, where they are 12-15.
Let’s conservatively assume Philadelphia finishes 16-13. Detroit would have to go 18-9 to pass them. The Pistons’ best 27-game stretch this season came from Oct. 28 — Dec. 26 when they went 15-12.
That was a different team, of course, and the ceiling for the current group may well be higher. What’s more, Reggie Jackson is set to return after the All-Star break. If Jackson, Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond can morph into the Big Three that Stan Van Gundy desires, the Pistons might pile up wins down the stretch.
It also bears mention that Detroit is within 2.5 games of seventh-place Miami, who plays 15 of its final 27 games against teams above .500. But no matter how teams are within striking distance, Detroit is going to have to get seriously hot sometime between now and April 11.
According to 538.com, the Pistons have a 27 percent chance of making the playoffs. The 76ers and the Heat are listed at 95 percent and 88 percent, respectively. That’s a significant gap to make up, and the Pistons don’t have a whole of time to spare.
Just three days ago, there was talk of the Pistons climbing as high as the No. 4 seed in the East. It seemed reasonable to wonder whether they were a legitimate contender in their conference.
“That will all play out over the last nine weeks here. Talking about it doesn’t do any good,” said Stan Van Gundy prior to Friday night’s loss. “You have to go out on the court and play. We have to get a lot better than we’ve been, so we’ll just see.
“We’ll see how everybody fits together, we’ll see how committed we’ll be at the defensive end of the floor, we’ll see what kind of chemistry we develop. We’ll just have to see as we go on.”
On the heels of two straight losses marked by clear growing pains related to Griffin’s place in the offense, the question now is whether the Pistons can squeeze into the eighth seed. Either Philadelphia or Miami will have to stumble, and Detroit will have to go on an unprecedented run.
Ehhhh is probably right.