CHICAGO – At a time in the NBA schedule when players and coaches can almost smell the playoffs, the Detroit Pistons collectively are holding their noses, trying to avoid the stink they’re trailing around these days.
After taking a significant step in its development last spring in reaching the postseason and doing itself mostly proud while getting swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit hasn’t just failed to stride forward. Over the past 10 days, it has staggered backward, dropping five of its past six to slide from a solid seventh in the Eastern Conference playoff race to essentially 10th.
In taking a 117-95 loss to the Chicago Bulls yesterday, coach Stan Van Gundy and his crew split their season series with the Bulls but lost the division-record tiebreaker.
They were so lifeless, start to finish, that savvy reporters lingered outside the visitors’ dressing room, anticipating something combustible and YouTube-able from Van Gundy once he emerged.
Only this wasn’t angry, volatile Yosemite Stan afterward. This was glum, lost, down-in-the-dumps Stan, a warning sign even more serious for the Pistons’ fate in 2016-17.
“The message I gave ‘em is, ‘Look, we’ve got 10 games left. And if we don’t change the way we’re playing, this is gonna get really, really ugly,’ ” Van Gundy said.
Detroit fell behind by 12 points in the first quarter, got outscored 15-2 to start the third and trailed by 25 in the fourth.
“Just really disappointing,” Van Gundy said. “We were at 33-33. ... Went down and ran into a buzz saw in Cleveland [on March 14]. 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.
“It’s just mind-boggling to me that six games ago we were playing OK and at .500. And now not even competitive. Cleveland torched us and it was one of those nights, but it was like we lost it right there.”
They’re 1-5 since then, getting outscored in the defeats by 32, 14, 12, 2 and 22 points. The Pistons have been outshot in the six-game stretch overall, 46.5 percent to 40.9, with opponents hitting 42.8 percent of their 3-pointers to Detroit’s 28.3. In their lone victory – at home against Phoenix, 112-94 – they were an uncharacteristic 12-of-25 from the arc to the Suns’ 6-of-22.
“It’s tough,” said point guard Reggie Jackson. “In an ideal world, we’d win all 10 and have the same record as last year.”
“Every team has a rough patch. It’s sad enough that ours is happening at the end of the season.”
Uh, Detroit’s longest winning streak this season is three games. Matching last season’s 44-38 finish isn’t just a long shot, it’s a heave from the other guys’ foul line.
“I think everybody expected us to play better than we have this season,” forward Stanley Johnson said. “Including ourselves, including you guys. Just looking around at the guys we have in the locker room, it’s disappointing that we come out and put out efforts like we do. There was a stretch there where we were a game [out of] sixth. Then I don’t know what changed.”
The Pistons have been off all season. They poked their heads above .500 at 14-13 in mid-December, then when full Punxsutawney, burrowing below .500 until they finally got back to even in their 66th game.
But the Cavaliers – perhaps anticipating another best-of-seven series with a foe that didn’t bow sufficiently in the 2016 first round – smacked them hard last week. The Pistons’ eyes still are watering.
“Just 10 days ago, we were a game out of sixth,” center Andre Drummond said Wednesday. “Every team has a rough patch. It’s sad enough that ours is happening at the end of the season.”
Last season, Detroit closed out the regular season by winning 10 of its final 14 games. But last season, it was taking care of the little things and playing hungrier overall.
In 2015-16, the Pistons ranked 15th offensively (103.3 points per 100 possessions) and 13th defensively (103.4). This season, their spread is worse – 103.6 and 105.3 – and so is the gap in their rankings (24th and 11th, respectively).
Their offensive rebounds have fallen from 12.5 to 10.8, dropping them from second in the NBA to eighth. Their pace is slower, perhaps owing to Jackson’s issues with knee and ankle soreness. And the Pistons are shooting 23 percent fewer free throws this season, a sizable year-over-year decline.
Drummond would seem a likely culprit both on the offensive boards and at the line, but his numbers are off only slightly. His offensive rebound average is at 4.3 (after a 4.9 last season). And while he has plummeted from fifth in the NBA with 586 free throw attempts to 40th (321), in raw numbers he’s scoring 1.8 points from the line (compared to 2.6 last season).
The big man wasn’t impressive Wednesday -- he should have been a focal point with Chicago’s top two bigs out, rather than getting outscored 17-8 by third-stringer Joffrey Lauvergne. But Drummond’s per-36 stats and efficiency have barely budged from last season, suggesting the source of Detroit’s woes lies elsewhere.
Defense has been shoddy – the Pistons are 11-28 when they give up 100 points or more. And bad starts have been lethal, given they are 9-27 when trailing after 12 minutes.
“Holy cow, man. Right now I’m wondering, if I started the five best players in history, if we could have a [good] first quarter,” Van Gundy said.
“Now we got to the point [against the Bulls] where even the things we’ve been able to count on – taking care of the ball, getting back on defense -- [has failed]. ... It’s a really bad stretch here. Probably as frustrating a stretch as we’ve had in the three years I’ve been here.”
Van Gundy himself is possible culprit – or easy target, depending on your outlook. His abrasive tone and lack of sugar-coating presumably has a shorter shelf life than coaches known for a more soothing approach. The absence of a buffer, with Van Gundy serving as Detroit’s chief basketball boss and coach, makes you wonder if Stan the exec might be losing patience with Stan the coach.
To his credit, Van Gundy didn’t distance himself from the current failings. He’s just hopeful his message (or a better message he may come up with) sinks in when his Pistons play the Magic next (7 p.m. ET, NBA LEAGUE PASS).
“You say so many things,” he said. “Clearly we’re not playing well. It’s either the message isn’t sinking in or it isn’t a good enough message or the teaching isn’t good enough. I mean, I’m not separated from this. I think it’s pretty clear from these six games I’m not finding the answers and not doing a very good job. So 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. I put lineups out there. I decide on defensive coverages. I call plays. So it’s all on me. I’m not running from that.
Right now, we’ve got to find a way to get it back. We’ll talk about anything and everything to turn this around.”
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