On the Road Again

Rugged early schedule plays its part in winless Pistons start

The Pistons completed a six-game road trip then came home for one game before heading to Philadelphia.
Jesse D. Garrabant (NBAE/Getty)
They say the NBA schedule evens out in the end, and to the extent that everyone plays 82 games – half at home, half on the road – in the same amount of days, give or take one or two over a 5½-month span, they’re right.

But not really. The Orlando Magic, for example, will play a league-low 13 back-to-back sets of games this season, while in their own division Atlanta and Charlotte will play 22 such sets. The Pistons, as they usually do, come in toward the higher end with 19 back-to-back sets.

They’ve got two down already, which is no surprise. The Pistons have played eight games. Nobody has played more and only Denver can match the Pistons’ six road games logged already.

“Now we go back on the road,” Tayshaun Prince said after Monday’s loss to Oklahoma City sent their record to 0-8. “I don’t know who did the schedule for us. It’s going to be tough, but this is what we’ve got to look forward to.”

The Pistons squeezed in their first practice since Nov. 3 on Tuesday, the byproduct of playing four games in five nights to end their six-game road trip, the longest they’ve experienced in eight seasons – and that came in March 2005, when their identity was well established, and with a team that was defending NBA champions.

Lawrence Frank stayed the course through the 4-20 start last season, coming out of the lockout, and Joe Dumars cited that as the primary reason the team didn’t panic and eventually found its footing, going 21-21 over the final 42 games. Frank struck a similar pose on Tuesday.

“The thing I liked is our guys, when you went in that locker room, very, very disappointed,” he said. “Laid it all out there, felt like we could have won the game – should have won the game – and you hate where you kick a game. Just to see how much that loss hurt … it should, and then we had a really good day of practice and you move forward.”

In their two home games, the Pistons have had 11-point fourth-quarter leads against both Houston and Oklahoma City. While troubling that they wound up losing both games, the fact the Pistons have positioned themselves to win each time at least speaks to the likelihood that when the schedule starts to even out, so will their record.

The Pistons were outscored 33-15 by Houston in the fourth quarter to lose 105-96 and 30-17 by Oklahoma City to lose 92-90, though Frank said the issues that led to the losses were vastly different. Against Houston, defensive breakdowns caused by Houston’s spread offense and sizzling 3-point shooting by Carlos Delfino were the culprit. Against Oklahoma City, problems started on the offensive end, when the Pistons struggled to get off good shots against a smaller lineup that switched on every screen, fueling the OKC transition game.

What if the Pistons had held on to beat Houston? How might the road trip and the early season played out differently? Veteran Corey Maggette, who practiced Tuesday for the first time since straining a calf muscle in the preseason loss at Miami, said there’s no question that game delivered an emotional blow.

“Definitely. When you go up 11, you feel like it’s guaranteed it’s going to be a win and they make some key plays and we turn the ball over and we didn’t execute and they make some shots,” he said. “With our team, it’s more confidence, staying loose, staying together and continuing to play. We still have over 70 games left. Who knows?”

As much as players are preached the gospel of focusing only on the next game, the Pistons all knew what the schedule meant for them and increased the importance of winning the opener.

“I told you guys the first seven games were going to be the most crucial because six of them were on the West Coast trip,” Prince said. “If you start off that West Coast trip and put yourself in a bad position, you’re always going to be fighting an uphill battle. You don’t want to start like this, but we put it on ourselves due to our up-and-down play in most of those games. If we’d have played like we played (Monday against the Thunder) and down in Oklahoma City for eight straight games, we’d be a lot better off.”

Frank resists the notion that the Houston comeback’s tentacles reached into the West Coast trip.

“When you lose the game, that’s how you would think,” he said. “If you won it, you’d never. There are teams that won their opener that have lost four or five games since. One game is one game.”

Even in the details of the schedule, apart from the onus a six-game road trip puts on a team and from the home-road imbalance, the Pistons have had no favors granted. Playing at Sacramento, in most cases, would have afforded them their best chance for a road win. But it came 24 hours after playing the go-go Denver Nuggets at altitude. Going from Los Angeles to Denver and back to Sacramento in the span of 30 hours was illogical scheduling, at best. And playing in three time zones in four nights – Mountain to Pacific to Central – was especially taxing with the lengthy flights those trips entailed.

In two of their last three games now – both of the OKC losses – the Pistons have played well enough to win on many nights. If they keep banging on the door, Maggette says, it’ll nudge open before long.

“It was a tough road trip for us,” he said. “We’re still young, but our guys are really improving. We need to take it as a learning experience right now. I know it’s hard to do that when losing, but I think we’re starting to improve and get better and do the right things that coach wants us to do. It’s going to translate to a win sooner or later.”

“We know if we continue to work our habits, we’ll get the wins we deserve to get,” Frank said. “No one likes to get off to a low start, but it is what it is. You can’t go back. You learn from your mistakes. You can’t live in them.”