Make or Break

Critical stretch ahead for Pistons: 9 of 13 February games at The Palace

The PIstons play nine of their next 13 games at home, including Feb. 8 against the Spurs.
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images
The Green Bay Packers pulled off an NFL rarity, landing a Super Bowl berth only after winning three consecutive road playoff games. But the reality is even more impressive. First the Packers had to beat two other playoff contenders, the Giants and Bears, to even make the postseason. The playoffs for the Packers began, if you will, before the playoffs began.

And so it is with the Pistons. They have 34 games remaining in the regular season, but you can think of them almost like an extended playoff series. And the first round of the unofficial playoffs is February. If the Pistons don’t win February … well, first things first.

Let’s talk about February. Of those 34 remaining games, 13 come in the month ahead and they define February as their make-or-break month. By the time it’s over, Pistons fans should either have a firm idea what it will take to make the playoffs or their focus will have shifted to the NBA draft lottery process.

Nine of 13 Pistons games in February will be at The Palace. Eight of the 13 will be against sub-.500 teams. Five of the 13 will come against the handful of teams against which the Pistons are directly competing for the East’s two apparent available berths. At 14 games under .500 (17-31) and four games in the loss column out of the final playoff spot in the East, the Pistons can’t afford many slip-ups.

That means this: games the Pistons should win, they must win; games that appear a 50-50 call, they need to win at a better than 50-50 clip; and games that look like long shots, well, it wouldn’t hurt if they won a handful more just like last week’s at Orlando.

Do all of that and the Pistons should be playing past April 13, the regular-season finale, and preparing for a first-round playoff series against Boston, Orlando or Miami.

It almost has to start with a win, too. Not only would a February-opening win get their critical month started on the right note, it would come at the expense of one of the teams the Pistons must beat out to land a playoff berth, Charlotte.

“It will be very important,” Austin Daye said of Wednesday’s game. “They get to see how we’re playing. We want to show them we’re a (team capable of) making the playoffs.”

The Pistons have split with Charlotte this season, winning at The Palace in early November – it was their first win of the season after opening 0-5 – before losing at Charlotte on Dec. 27.

The Bobcats will be wrapping up a six-game road trip when they arrive at The Palace, a stretch that could have pushed Charlotte to the brink of playoff extinction but instead revitalized its postseason chances. Charlotte opened the trip by winning three straight against Sacramento, Phoenix and Golden State before losing to the LA Clippers and Utah.

Pistons players have talked openly about the importance of making up ground in February for the past few weeks. So while John Kuester talked to them a few weeks ago about the importance of chalking up wins during a five-game stretch that included games against Philadelphia, Toronto and Sacramento, he hasn’t felt compelled to address the month ahead.

“We haven’t talked about this stretch,” he said, “but I think they’re aware of it. We understand how important it is to take it one game at a time. I thought our approach has been pretty doggone good and it’ll be interesting to see how we respond tomorrow.”

“It’s really important,” said Rodney Stuckey, who missed the two-game weekend set at Miami and New York with the deep shoulder bruise suffered in last week’s loss to Denver and won’t play against Charlotte. “We’re home, so hopefully we can win games at home. It’s really crucial for us before we go into the All-Star break.”

The Pistons will be exceptionally busy leading to the break with nine games jammed into 15 days, seven of them at The Palace. It opens and closes with games against struggling teams, but in the middle come four winning opponents – San Antonio, Miami, Portland and Atlanta. The latter three games come in a four-day stretch, all at home.

Winning one or two games against that group of teams would help greatly, of course, and their recent improved play makes such a goal realistic. But it’s those five games against the East’s lower-echelon playoff contenders that will be most critical. In addition to Wednesday’s game with Charlotte, the others are Saturday at Milwaukee, a Feb. 16 Palace date with Indiana to send them into the All-Star break, and a two-game trip to Indiana and Philadelphia on Feb. 23 and 25.

“Home wins are going to be very important coming up,” Daye said. “Hopefully, we can get a little streak going. That would be really good. We’re playing good basketball right now. We need to just keep it up.”

# Stuckey counted himself out for Wednesday but said the shoulder is feeling better, though he wouldn’t guess at a return date. Ben Wallace, who missed the last two games while attending to a family matter, was back at practice and says he’s ready to play. Rip Hamilton told a team spokesman he was feeling “a little” better and is listed as probable for Wednesday. With Stuckey out, Hamilton could be in line for duty off the bench. Jason Maxiell missed practice with a sore back that has been lingering for a while and is doubtful.