Pistons hit season’s final stretch as a team expecting to win
This last extended road trip is the final component of a stretch that began on March 11 with the Pistons playing the first of a five-game road trip that bled into another four-game trek on the heels of a brief stopover at The Palace to host Miami. So far, the Pistons have played 12 games – nine of them on the road – and are a respectable 5-7 despite unexpected hurdles strewn on their course.
Among them are injuries to their backcourt that have knocked Ben Gordon out for three games and all but six minutes of a fourth and cost them Rodney Stuckey for six games and all but seven minutes of a seventh.
The Pistons aren’t going to win a championship this season, as Lawrence Frank conceded this week, but surviving stretches like the one that’s nearly behind them now is critical to teams looking to make the playoff field, and beyond that looking to secure the highest possible seed, positions the Pistons hope to occupy at this point in future seasons. Surviving road-heavy stretches complicated by injury, as this one was, with nearly a .500 record suggests much of Frank’s heavy lifting has led to the taking shape of a foundation built on principles.
“We’ve come together as a team,” Frank said after Wednesday’s practice – and, talk about bite-sized pieces, there are only four more practice days available this season. “Every night, you expect to have a chance to win the game, where in December, January, you had no clue. You had no idea what was going to happen. (Now) you go in expecting to win, disappointed and surprised when you don’t. Don’t know exactly where it’s going to come from, but know that as a group we’re not going to hang our heads. We’re going to fight through adversity. We’re going to trust each other and, despite the good or bad times, we’re going to stay with it, which is a whole lot better than where we were.”
In only three of the seven losses since March 11 have the Pistons not been ahead or tied with five minutes or less to play and in another, last week’s loss at Chicago, they were within four points at the five-minute mark despite playing without both Stuckey and Gordon.
“I can say from day one up until now, I’ve seen a huge improvement with this team,” said Ben Wallace, from the perspective of a 16-year veteran who’s been at both ends of the spectrum and every point in between, from championship teams to lottery teams. “Our first couple months, we had some good individual plays here and there, but we never gelled. Right now, we can go out and we don’t have to ask anybody to score 25 or 30 points in order for this team to get a win. Everybody can go out there and do their part. Everybody knows what’s expected of them now and we go out and play as a unit.”
The first three games of this last extended road trip will come not only against Eastern Conference playoff teams, but against opponents with heavy stakes. Atlanta and Orlando are in a five-way fight for the last two home-court-advantage slots in the East; Miami is battling Chicago for the East’s No. 1 seed.
But the Pistons will take the court expecting to compete, expecting to be in position to win if they can make enough plays in the last five minutes, a confidence Frank could sense wasn’t there in the early weeks.
“It was carryover from previous years in terms of when times got tough, we had a tendency to have a glass jaw,” he said. “When a game goes from eight to 12 to 20, that’s a problem. Our guys have worked their tails off and just the consistency of being the same guy every day, to appreciate what each other does and to enjoy each other, now you don’t want to let each other down. When (deficits grow to) eight and 10, we’re going to knock it back to eight to six to five and now we’re going to have a chance to win.”
The fact of their consistent competitiveness is evidence that Frank managed to keep the faith even when there were few outward signs of progress.
“It depends on whether the players are going to buy into the system or whether they’re going to come to work every day,” Wallace said. “Are they going to go out there and give it 110 percent to make it work instead of 30 or 40 percent to make it fail? Everybody’s on board. Everybody’s doing what’s asked of them.
“He’s selling the dream that if we go out and play hard every night, we’ll give ourselves a chance to win and that’s all anybody wants is a chance to win. Nobody can make a promise we’re going to go out and win every night, but if you go out and play hard you give yourself a chance.”
The Pistons have done that consistently for more than two months, encompassing nearly half of this abbreviated season. Frank won’t ever allow himself to get comfortable or complacency to take root. But the challenges that seemed mammoth to the Pistons in January are now reduced to bite-sized chunks.