Razor Thin

Pistons’ margin for error nearing zero as playoff field takes shape

A win over a conference rival could keep the Pistons' faint glimmer of postseason hope alive.
David Liam Kyle/NBAE/Getty Images
For as long as the past two months, the Pistons have been playing a string of de facto must-win games. They’ve lost their share or more, and none of them technically eliminated them from playoff contention. In the most technical sense, neither will a loss at Indiana on Wednesday night.

But a loss to the Pacers would, at last, make them pay for all of those blown opportunities and reduce their margin for error to zero. A loss at Indiana would leave the Pistons at 26-48 with eight games left, putting their best possible finish at 34-48. An Indiana win would give the Pacers 34 wins, also with eight to play.

As unlikely as it would seem for the Pistons to close 8-0 while Indiana finishes 0-8 – and Milwaukee and Charlotte, currently wedged between the Pacers and Pistons, doing their part in stumbling down the stretch – the door to the postseason would remain slightly ajar.

Since the Pistons would have to win all eight, that means they would close with wins over division rivals Chicago, Milwaukee and Cleveland – all home games – to finish 9-7 in the Central Division. And since Indiana would have to lose all eight, it means the Pacers would fall to 8-8 in the division by losing at home to Milwaukee on Friday.

After head-to-head competition – the Pistons and Pacers would be 2-2 against each other with an Indiana win on Wednesday – the first tiebreaker involving teams in the same division is division record.

The reality is their playoff outlook is as bleak as bleak can be and the players know as much. It’s particularly galling to a team that felt injuries derailed them a year ago and spent the summer preparing to prove their mettle.

“It’s been tough for everybody – not just the last few games, but it’s the whole year,” said Ben Gordon, who had an exasperating season a year ago, suffering with a severe ankle injury, but perhaps an even more frustrating one this year given his relative good health but diminished production.

Seeing Philadelphia not only safely in the playoffs but now ahead of New York in the chase for the No. 6 seed, and Indiana taking a big step toward locking up the No. 8 spot with a win over Boston on Monday night is especially aggravating.

“I think we probably have a little bit more talent than those teams if you look at our roster,” Gordon said. “But that’s not always what wins in the NBA. You’ve got to have cohesiveness, chemistry, and that’s something we’ve struggled with. It’s been hurting us. You look at our talent, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be probably a fifth seed in the East. But it hasn’t happened.”

The Pistons would have no trouble scanning their schedule this season and picking out the games that could have – and, in many cases, should have – turned out differently and lifted them comfortably into the playoff field. It started with the season opener. Here’s a look at the 20 most damaging losses of the season in chronological order:

  • Oct. 27 at New Jersey – The Pistons led the Nets by seven points with 1:40 left, but ended up losing 101-98 in the season opener.
  • Oct. 29 vs. Oklahoma City – Up one after Charlie Villanueva’s corner jumper with 7.5 seconds to go, the Pistons surrendered a layup to Jeff Green to lose by a point in the home opener.
  • Oct. 30 at Chicago – Completing a dizzying four days, the Pistons built a 21-point lead at Chicago midway through the third quarter, then were outscored 34-9 in the fourth and lost by 10.
  • Nov. 3 at Atlanta – The Pistons fell to 0-5 when they led by five points midway through the fourth quarter, then got outscored 18-4 in the final six minutes.
  • Nov. 23 at Dallas – After a slow start, the Pistons built a 12-point lead that was still five in the fourth quarter, but they were outscored 26-17 over the final eight minutes and lost by four.
  • Nov. 28 vs. New York – The Pistons led by eight midway through the third quarter, but lost at home in double overtime.
  • Dec. 7 at Houston – Rip Hamilton got ejected early in the game, but the Pistons led by nine midway through the second quarter when Houston went on a 16-0 run.
  • Dec. 10 at Minnesota – The Pistons were dominant in building a 17-4 lead, but they’d given it all back before the 10-minute mark of the second quarter and lost to the 5-17 Timberwolves.
  • Dec. 11 vs. Toronto – The Pistons led by 25 late in the third quarter but melted down, getting outscored 37-17 in the fourth against the struggling Raptors.
  • Dec. 17 vs. LA Clippers – Coming off a 23-point win over Atlanta, the Pistons looked to build momentum against the 5-21 Clippers. Instead, they got blown out at home, losing by 21.
  • Dec. 27 at Charlotte – Against a team the Pistons by then knew they would have to contend for one of the final two playoff berths, Detroit saw a 26-all tie at the end of one quarter suddenly balloon to a huge deficit when the Bobcats opened the second on a 24-2 run.
  • Jan. 10 at Chicago – A virtual replay of their opening-week loss at Chicago. This time, the Pistons led by 12 at halftime but were outscored 33-15 in the third quarter and lost by 13.
  • Jan. 21 at New Jersey – Coming off two encouraging performances – a home win over Dallas and a narrow loss at Boston in which the Pistons led inside the final five minutes – they were lethargic in a 15-point loss to the 11-31 Nets.
  • Jan. 26 vs. Denver – Coming off perhaps their best win of the season – a 103-96 win at Orlando – the Pistons again failed to sustain momentum as Chauncey Billups shot 6 of 9 from the arc in a nine-point Nuggets win at The Palace.
  • Jan. 28 at Miami – With Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in street clothes, the Pistons led Miami by 10 late in the third quarter and nearly won. But Austin Daye failed to convert a lob pass at the buzzer and officials didn’t make the call when James Jones made contact with him in mid-air.
  • Jan. 30 at New York – Tied at the end of three quarters in a game where both teams were sharp offensively, the Pistons couldn’t find a passing gear to match New York’s, getting outscored 33-15 in the fourth quarter.
  • Feb. 14 vs. Atlanta – The Pistons led Atlanta by 15 in the first half and were humming offensively, scoring 51 by halftime, but scored just 28 in the second half and lost by 15.
  • March 2 – With their playoff hopes running on fumes, the Pistons lost at home by 11 points to the 14-47 Minnesota Timberwolves.
  • March 23 vs. Miami – Ahead by eight points to start the fourth quarter against the Heat – at full strength this time – the Pistons’ bench quickly allowed Miami to go on a 15-0 run and seize control. March 25 at Cleveland – The 13-57 Cavaliers led almost the entire way – the Pistons briefly held a two-point lead – and won 97-91 in a game that all but snuffed out even faint hope of a closing rush.