Before this season began, the Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls were both expected to contend for the Central Division crown and Eastern Conference supremacy.
Only one of them is making it happen.
The Central-leading Pistons look to extend their season-high winning steak to six games and avenge an earlier loss to the last-place Bulls when they meet Friday at The Palace of Auburn Hills.
Three-time defending division champion Detroit (13-5) eliminated Chicago from last season's conference semifinals in six games, and both teams were expected to be back among the East's best teams this season.
The Pistons have been playing like a playoff-bound team, already with a 4 1/2-game division lead, while the Bulls are seven games back and appear to just be getting their season on track.
Detroit has been surging lately, but got off to a rough start in Wednesday's 91-76 victory over New Orleans. The Pistons fell behind by 15 points early in the game before turning up their defense. They held the Hornets to an opponent season-low 34.7 percent shooting in the game, and just 34 points after halftime.
"When you play four games in five nights in four different cities, we were a little sluggish, but we gave a gutty performance and a really good defensive effort," Detroit coach Flip Saunders said. "It shows a little bit of our character, that we hung in there and came back. We kept our poise, didn't panic and just kept chipping away."
The Pistons are outscoring opponents by an average of 22.0 points during their five-game winning streak, holding teams to an average of 86.2 points on 43.7 percent shooting.
Detroit is 6-1 at home, winning its last two games there by a combined 58 points.
The Pistons opened this season with three consecutive victories before losing 97-93 at Chicago on Nov. 8. It was the Bulls' first win after an 0-4 start.
Detroit's Rasheed Wallace had a season-high 36 points in that loss. He is coming off his third double-double of the season with 13 points and 10 rebounds on Wednesday.
Chicago (5-11) has won four of its last five regular-season games against the Pistons after winning just four of the previous 32.
The Bulls failed to gain any momentum from last month's win over Detroit, losing six of their next seven, but they have played better recently with wins in three of their last four games. They are averaging 97.5 points in that span while making 44.0 percent from 3-point range, compared to an average of 86.5 points and 28.3 percent shooting from beyond the arc during their 2-10 start.
"We are currently playing better," Chicago leading scorer Ben Gordon said. "I wouldn't say that we are all the way back where we need to be. But we are playing better."
The Bulls overcame an 11-point third-quarter deficit to beat Charlotte 91-82 on Wednesday, outscoring the Bobcats 38-22 in the fourth quarter. Chicago went 12-of-18 from the field in fourth while holding Charlotte to 5-of-18.
"I think we played the way the Chicago Bulls play, moving the ball, passing the ball," Andres Nocioni said. "I think we played really hard defense."
Luol Deng had a season-high 30 points against the Bobcats, and is averaging 22.6 points in his last five games after missing three games with a sore lower back.
Nocioni scored 10 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter and added a season-high 11 rebounds on Wednesday after scoring a season-high 30 points in Monday's 103-98 loss to Dallas.
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