When Flip Saunders was their coach, the Detroit Pistons were one of the league’s toughest teams to beat at home. They haven’t enjoyed that same home-court advantage since his firing in 2008.
Now the coach of the Washington Wizards, Saunders makes his first trip back to The Palace of Auburn Hills on Sunday to take on struggling Detroit.
Saunders led the Pistons (7-12) to the Eastern Conference finals in each of his three seasons as their coach, but never got them into the NBA finals. He was fired June 3, 2008, after Detroit lost to Boston in the postseason.
Michael Curry replaced Saunders as coach last season, and the Pistons regressed. They made the playoffs as the eighth seed and were swept by Cleveland in the first round.
John Kuester has since taken over the coaching reins in Detroit, and the team hasn’t seen much improvement. The Pistons’ 105-96 win over Milwaukee on Friday was just their second victory in 10 games. They did win 106-103 at Washington on Nov. 14 in Saunders’ first game against his former team.
Part of Detroit’s struggles following Saunders’ dismissal has stemmed from its troubles at home. Since the start of the 2008-09 season, the Pistons are 20th in the league with a .520 home winning percentage, going 26-24.
The Pistons were 97-26 at The Palace under Saunders for the NBA’s third-best home winning percentage (.789) in that span.
Saunders’ new team is starting to get things turned around after a sluggish start.
The Wizards (7-11) are coming off Friday’s 109-107 overtime loss to Toronto, just their second defeat in six games after opening 3-9.
Washington blew a six-point lead with 5 1/2 minutes to go in the fourth quarter but had a chance to win in overtime. Gilbert Arenas(notes) missed a layup with about 2 seconds left and the Wizards’ tip-in attempts also failed.
“I’m more disappointed in this game than any game we’ve had,” Saunders said. “When you’re about to get there, you got to take that next step, and that next step means being more disciplined and not being complacent. We just didn’t do what we needed to do.”
Arenas had a season-high 34 points and is looking healthy after being limited to 15 games over the previous two seasons due to various knee injuries. The three-time All-Star is averaging 26.0 points in three games this month after averaging 12.5 in his previous four.
He had 19 points and a season-best 10 assists last month against Detroit, which has won three straight home games over Washington.
Ben Gordon(notes) led the Pistons with 29 points in the first meeting, but he’s been slowed by a sprained left ankle recently. He had 16 points Friday in his second game back after sitting out the previous two.
“It’s still sprained, so I’m just trying to do what I can out there,” Gordon said.
With Gordon not at full strength, rookie Jonas Jerebko(notes) has picked up some of the slack, scoring 16 points Friday. Jerebko is averaging 13.8 points in his last four games after averaging 5.0 points in his first 13.
“Jonas has emerged as one of the best rookies in this league - he is really expanding his game,” Kuester said.