A 20/20 Vision

Half of Pistons’ remaining 40 games against East’s outsiders

The Pistons face the Nets on Friday, another Eastern Conference team battling for the final two playoff spots.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images
CALDWELL, N.J. – The Pistons have 40 games left to their season and exactly half of them will be just like their next one – against the four teams directly ahead of them or the four immediately behind them in the Eastern Conference, the nine of them scapping over the last two playoff spots most likely available to them.

If that doesn’t put Friday’s game with New Jersey in the “must win” camp, it and the 19 others the Pistons will play against Philadelphia (two), Indiana (four), Charlotte (two), Milwaukee (three), Toronto (one), Washington (two), New Jersey (two more after Friday) and Cleveland (three) are close enough.

“Those are game we can capitalize on and we should capitalize on, especially if we’re serious about trying to make the playoffs,” Ben Gordon said after Thursday’s practice on the campus of Caldwell College. “A loss is a loss, but when you look at games like last night against Boston, we know we can compete against them. When you look at teams like New Jersey, some of the lower teams, we should not only be able to compete but win those games. That’s the mentality we should have.”

The Pistons are in a better place mentally these days, feeling better about themselves than they have all season. They dominated Dallas in a Monday home win – the Mavs followed up by dropping the Lakers on Wednesday – and led for the majority of the night against Boston before getting outplayed in the final three minutes in a most hostile environment.

“The guys are doing a good job of pulling for each other and working hard,” John Kuester said Thursday. “Yeah, I see a lot of positives in what we’re doing as of late.”

“Even though we did lose, we showed we could compete with anyone,” Charlie Villanueva said. “Boston is the best in the East, second best team in the league. We showed we can compete with them. If we keep it up, anything is possible.”

Forty-two games ago, the season began for the Pistons where it resumes Friday night, at New Jersey. They led that game by seven points with 1:40 left before losing 101-98, the first among a half-dozen or so wrenching losses the Pistons feel should have landed in the win column and would have them sitting at .500 or better at this point.

“When you drop a close game like we did in Jersey the first game of the year, you always think about what could have happened,” Gordon said. “We’ve had a lot of games like that this year. Another one that sticks out is the game at home against the Thunder (in the home opener two nights later). We could have won in Jersey and you turn around the next game and have another game you could have won. Those are definitely games, if you win those, the outlook of your season might have been a little different.

“Last night was another game – playing against a Boston Celtics team that was completely healthy and we have a chance to beat them but we just don’t make the right plays down the stretch that can close the game out.”

“Of course that (New Jersey opener) is in our minds,” Villanueva said. “The season was so young – that game, we shot ourselves in the foot. But I think we’re a much different team now. We’re playing with a lot more confidence and I think tomorrow is going to be a different outcome.”

At 15-27, the Pistons are just 2½ games out of the No. 8 playoff spot. There’s a fairly strong likelihood at least one Eastern team will be below .500, perhaps several games under. If the Pistons split their final 40 games, they’d finish 35-47, which might or might not be good enough. But the Pistons aren’t just looking at the 20 games against struggling East teams as potential wins, not after they’ve raised their level of play. They’re now projecting a sense of confidence that they have a shot – if they play hard and smart for 48 minutes – to beat anyone.

They’ll probably need to turn some games like the Boston outcome from losses to wins, too. Getting to 35 wins without chalking up the occasional win over a Miami or an Atlanta would leave the Pistons zero margin for error in those 20 games against the other East quasi-contenders hopeful of landing one of the last two spots – if you concede playoff berths to the six East teams currently above .500: Boston, Miami, Atlanta, Orlando, Chicago and New York

“Those are very important games,” Villanueva said, “especially when you’re playing those teams. Every win is very important. Down the road, toward the end of the season, that’s where all these games will come into effect. I’m exicted. I think we can make a push here.”

In addition to the 20 games against similarly positioned teams, the Pistons play the East’s top six teams 10 more times, half of them at home. So far this season, they’re 2-10 against those teams with a home win apiece over Atlanta and Boston. The Pistons have 10 games left against Western Conference teams, seven of them at home and one daunting three-game road trip in March to San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Denver.

With a win over Dallas and a near-miss at Boston, the Pistons feel a lot better about their chances to win a chunk of those other 20 games than they might have a week or so ago. But the surest path to a playoff push is to win as many of those 20 games like Friday’s as they can. The rest of the season starts where the regular season began. The Pistons are banking on a different outcome this time.

  • Tayshaun Prince, who rolled his left ankle in the second half at Boston but returned to finish the game, went through Thursday’s practice and had his foot plunged into ice afterward. He’s probable for Friday. Ben Wallace remains unlikely to play.