Caught from Behind

Knicks, Cavs join the fray with Pistons in chase for East’s No. 8 seed

Greg Monroe
The Pistons must make up ground in the Eastern Conference to have a shot at playoff contention.
Ron Turenne (NBAE/Getty)
The best part about Wednesday for the Pistons? Getting caught in a blizzard.

Their loss in Toronto combined with wins by New York and Cleveland leaves them in a tie for the 10th playoff spot with the Cavs, a half-game back of the Knicks. They hoped to use Tuesday’s win over Sacramento, in which they held the Kings to 35 second-half points to end a run of leaky defensive performances, as a springboard to mount a charge at Atlanta for the Eastern Conference’s last postseason berth.

They forgot about the sneak attack from the rear. Since losing big and looking awful at The Palace 10 days ago, the Knicks have won five straight. And convincingly – all by double figures and by an average of 15.2 points. It started with a 12-point win at Minnesota, where the Pistons would fall behind by 31 points two nights later in the third quarter.

It’s exactly the out-of-nowhere turnaround that John Loyer keeps … predicting? Expecting? Hoping for? He’s said over and over again in the month-plus since succeeding Maurice Cheeks what winning just two or three games in a row would mean for the Pistons’ playoff chances.

The Pistons find themselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place now. Atlanta is flagging, but the Hawks still have five fewer losses than the Pistons. Atlanta has 20 games remaining, the Pistons 17. Even if the Hawks continue to stumble – let’s say they go 5-15 to finish – the Pistons would have to go 7-10 to tie them with a 32-50 record. Now, 7-10 doesn’t sound like much, but the Pistons have gone 15-30 – losing twice for every win – since peaking at 10-10 in early December.

And one of those wins would have to come against the Hawks – the April 8 makeup of their originally scheduled Jan. 29 game when an ice storm swallowed Atlanta – to square their season series at 2-2. The Pistons currently have a better conference record than the Hawks at 20-20 to Atlanta’s 18-19, which would then determine who’d get the playoff berth should they tie for the eighth seed.

Left unsaid there: The Pistons are an unfathomable 5-20 against the West. They beat Sacramento twice and Phoenix, Denver and San Antonio – go figure – once apiece. Home losses to the Lakers, Utah and New Orleans haunt them.

Which makes next week’s four-game Western swing huge. It starts in Denver and wraps up in Utah and both of those games are verging on must-win status for the Pistons. The Jazz and Nuggets are reeling. If the Pistons still have an inner belief in their own playoff viability, they have to stick those games in the win column and get out of town.

The March 22 game against the Clippers will be beyond challenging – the Clips, 46-20, will have had four full days off; the Pistons play in Phoenix the night before – but that game with the Suns … well, Cleveland’s win there last night speaks to the recent skid plaguing the league’s biggest surprise. The Suns – like Denver and Utah – are 3-7 in their last 10 games. They’ve lost three in a row.

Then again, they got Eric Bledsoe back Wednesday after a 33-game absence due to a knee injury. He wasn’t sharp and that probably played a big role in their nine-point loss to the Cavs, who picked an unlikely time to break their own four-game losing streak. Fair to assume Bledsoe will be much sharper in 10 days when the Pistons see him.

Also fair to assume we’ll have a firmer handle on just how realistic all this playoff talk is for a 25-40 team when the Pistons return to Michigan after the March 24 game at Utah.

Which brings us to the “hard place” half of the equation. Wednesday’s Pistons, Cavs and Knicks results mean the Pistons are much closer to finishing with one of the league’s eight worst records than they are to wrapping up a playoff berth. In fact, the Pistons and Cavs are tied, at .385, for the league’s eighth-worst winning percentage, and they have two games remaining against each other.

That’s important this year because of the draft implications. The Pistons owe Charlotte a No. 1 pick as a condition of the 2012 Ben Gordon-Corey Maggette deal. Finishing with a bottom-eight record alone won’t ensure the Pistons keep the pick – only the results of the May 20 lottery would do that – but it would give them about an 83 percent chance of doing so if they go into the lottery sitting eighth.

The Pistons have steadfastly refused to employ any tactic that would lessen their chances to win games over the past four seasons long after the playoffs dream had died, to the chagrin of a segment of their fan base. History has pretty much proven they suffered no negative consequences for drafting seventh, eighth, ninth and eighth instead of a spot or two higher in those years.

But picking eighth as opposed to seventh is different than picking eighth as opposed to not at all in the first round. Thus, the hard place.

They can make it all go away by stringing those wins together John Loyer insists are within their grasp. By the time they get back from their Western road swing 11 days from now, the picture should be rounding into focus.