The Detroit Pistons followed a very, very bad loss on Tuesday to the worst team in the NBA with an even worse defeat on Wednesday, leaving head coach Stan Van Gundy wondering if his team’s even got enough fight left in it to cross the finish line in the race for the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot.
Detroit rarely even looked competitive, especially after halftime, in a 117-95 loss to the Chicago Bulls. This, despite the fact that Chicago was also on the second night of a back-to-back, having gone to overtime after blowing a 16-point edge in Toronto on Tuesday, and was playing without not only done-for-the-season star Dwyane Wade, but also its top two centers, after Robin Lopez got suspended for fighting and Cristiano Felicio bruised his lower back on a scary fall following a fourth-quarter block by Raptors forward Patrick Patterson.
No matter. The woeful Bulls shot a blistering 58.8 percent from the field as a team, with a season-high 36 assists on 47 made field-goals, as the backcourt of Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo combined for 21 helpers against two turnovers to feed frontcourt mates Nikola Mirotic (a season-high 28 points on 12-for-15 shooting), Paul Zipser (15 points on 6-for-9 shooting) and Joffrey Lauvergne (17 points on 7-for-13 shooting). The Pistons spent nearly the entire second half trailing by double-digits, falling behind by as many as 25 points en route to their fifth loss in six games.
Two weeks ago, it looked like Detroit had put itself in position to make the kind of playoff push many expected after last season’s hard-fought first-round loss to the eventual NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers. Now, as Van Gundy said after Wednesday’s embarrassing performance, the team’s giving fans and observers precious little reason to believe it can even make the postseason. From ESPN’s Nick Friedell:
“The message I gave [Pistons players in the locker room after the game] is, ‘Look, we got 10 games left,” he said. “And if we don’t change the way we’re playing, this is going to get really, really ugly.
“We didn’t defend at any point in the second half. We didn’t defend much in the first half, either. Just really disappointing. We were 33-33, got tied, back to .500 after that New York game [on March 11], ran into a buzz saw in Cleveland [three nights later], and that’s it. We haven’t bounced back. It’s like we took that one hit and have not recovered at all. Have not played a decent game since then. This is six bad games in a row.”
“Right now, we don’t have a lot of life in us, and we got to find some by Friday,” Van Gundy added. “It’s just not one position, either. We’re just not playing. We’re not. We’re just bad all the way around.”
The numbers certainly back that up. Detroit’s been torched by an average of 12.8 points per 100 possessions over the past six games, producing points at a putrid rate that would rank several miles below the Philadelphia 76ers’ league-worst full-season offensive efficiency mark. Opponents have also torched the Pistons from long distance, knocking down nearly 43 percent of their 3-pointers during this span, including a blistering 65.8 percent from the short corners, as teams have feasted on lackadaisical defensive effort to penetrate from the perimeter, draw attention and kick out for open looks.
“I mean, it’s just mind-boggling to me that six games ago we were playing OK and at .500,” Van Gundy said, according to Aaron McMann of MLive.com. And now, we’re not even competitive.”
And, as a result, they’re no longer in playoff position. Detroit now stands at 34-38, in 10th place in the East. After Wednesday’s loss, they split their season series with the Bulls, but Chicago owns the head-to-head tiebreaker, because they’ll have a better record within the Central Division than the Pistons by season’s end.
“We have 10 left,” said center Andre Drummond, who was outplayed by third-stringer Lauvergne, which is the kind of thing that absolutely can’t happen for the Pistons to succeed. “We can’t take back these past few games that we lost. We need to regroup. We have an off-day tomorrow in Orlando, and we need to come together, get ourself some good rest and try to beat an aggressive team and try to get this thing rolling.”
Even if they do get rolling, they might be too far behind the 8-ball to reach the promised land. Despite only being separated from the No. 8-seeded Miami Heat by 1 1/2 games and having a fairly favorable schedule down the stretch, the Pistons now look like long-shots to make the postseason. FiveThirtyEight’s projections give them a 14 percent shot of making the final field, while Inpredictable’s slightly sunnier modeling pegs Detroit’s odds of cracking the East’s top eight at 20.5 percent.
Van Gundy keeps searching for answers that will jolt his flagging team. On Wednesday, he yanked inconsistent starting point guard Reggie Jackson from the starting lineup, replacing him with spark-plug veteran Ish Smith, to little effect. At this point, though, as Detroit continues to struggle to relocate the spark that made them look like a team on the rise last season, even the coach and team president can’t help but wonder if his team’s tuning him out. From Rod Beard of the Detroit News:
“[I] say so many things — I don’t have any idea. Clearly, we’re not playing well, so it’s either the message isn’t sinking in or it’s not a good enough message or the teaching isn’t good enough,” Van Gundy said after Wednesday’s 22-point loss. “I’m not separated from this, obviously — it’s pretty clear from these six games that I’m not finding the answers and not doing a very good job.
“It starts with me; I’m the person in charge. I selected everybody in that locker room. I’m the one who wanted them in there; I decide who plays and I put lineups out there and defensive coverages and call plays.
“It’s all on me — I’m not running from that. Right now, we’ve got to try to find a way to get it back.”
If he, Drummond, Jackson and the rest of Detroit’s core pieces can’t do it over the next three weeks, a long offseason full of difficult questions about the future of the franchise will begin much earlier than anybody in the Motor City anticipated.
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