Fourth-Quarter Push

With 20 games to go, Pistons need to make up ground fast in East

Brandon Jennings
The Pistons have ground to cover starting with Saturday's game against the Celtics in Boston.
Brian Babineau (NBAE/Getty)
BOSTON – The Pistons are a mere 3-9 since John Loyer replaced Mo Cheeks a little less than a month ago. But Loyer took the keys just as the Pistons were about to enter a road filled with more potholes than the winter-battered Michigan byways. Of the 12 games under Loyer, nine have come against teams currently holding a playoff position.

The schedule softens – a little, at least – starting now. The weekend trip that took them first to Minnesota and now to Boston will double the number of current non-playoff teams the Loyer-coached Pistons have faced from two to four, though Minnesota – which entered Friday’s game at .500 – surely would be in favorable playoff position if it played in the East. Of their final 20 games, the Pistons will play nine teams that currently are lottery bound.

That gives them a chance, at least, to make the final quarter of their season look more like their first quarter rather than their middle two. The Pistons were 10-10 through 20 games, but 14-28 – two losses for every win – through the 42 games that take them into Sunday’s meeting with the Celtics.

But the only way they do so is to start stringing wins together. Since hitting the break-even mark in early December – when they won four straight games by an average of 12.5 points – the Pistons have won back-to-back games only three times. Their best stretch was a three-game win streak that spanned the Cheeks-Loyer transition.

“Any time you’re going to make a push, you’ve got to string wins together,” Loyer said. “But you’ve got to take them one at a time. Your tendency sometimes when you win a game is maybe you don’t come back with the same fire.”

On the other side of the coin, the Pistons have lost three straight games twice, four straight twice and six straight once over the past 42 games. Momentum has been elusive for the Pistons as chemistry. In Wednesday’s loss to Chicago, they held the Bulls to 71 points through three quarters and trailed by just a point, then gave up 20 points in the opening six minutes of the fourth quarter.

In Friday’s disheartening loss at Minnesota, they surrendered 39 first-quarter points.

Defense remains the most consistent link to losing for the Pistons. When they hold opponents to something close to the league average of 45 percent shooting, they’re pretty good. In their three wins under Loyer, they held New York to 39 percent and Atlanta to 45.5 percent with their win under San Antonio in Loyer’s debut the outlier.

The Spurs shot 52 percent, but only 29 percent from the 3-point arc, well below their league-best 39 percent, while also having their attempts limited to 17, four under their average. The Pistons are 0-7 in other games where opponents have made 46 percent or more of their shots. Minnesota wound up shooting 45 percent when the Timberwolves – ahead by 28 after three quarters – made only 6 of 19 in the fourth quarter to drag their average down.

Among the attempted solutions, Loyer has begun to implement more zone looks. Cheeks used it almost exclusively out of timeouts for a possession. Loyer will go with it for several possessions in a row, as he did Friday night at Minnesota.

“We do sprinkle in a little bit of zone and we may play more in the future,” Loyer said. “I think we’ve done a little bit better job of transition defense, for the most part. We’re very consistent on our coverages on side pick and roll. You try to solve one problem and another creeps up and you move from problem to problem and try to get better.”

With 20 games to play and trailing Atlanta by four in the loss column for the final playoff spot, the Pistons can’t afford to trade solved problem for newly created ones. For a team that’s had fourth-quarter troubles all season, the fourth quarter of their season has to be their best yet.