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Pistons get taste of playoff urgency in regular season

A key stretch of games has ramped up the intensity in Detroit

POSTED: Apr 4, 2016 6:51 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


Reggie Jackson, Andre Drummond and the young Pistons are eager for a taste of the playoffs.

Normally at this time of year — normally since 2010, anyway, the start of the Detroit Pistons' current playoff drought — these guys would have their noses buried in smartphones immediately after games.

They'd be planning trips to Vegas or Cozumel, roughing out with their trainers this summer's workout program, maybe even shutting down the NBA schedule early to jump start another dreary offseason of regret.

But the notorious "DEE-troit! BAS-ketball!' call that booms from the P.A. system at The Palace of Auburn Hills has been sounding less plaintive these days. Its swagger and challenge is being restored by a young Pistons squad that has climbed over the likes of Chicago, Washington and Milwaukee into the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket.

And even though it recently was written in this space how valuable a toe dip into the first round will be in Detroit's development — to experience the shifting of gears that occurs in style and intensity, to tamp down fatigue and block out minor injuries for games that mean so much more, to blink through watery eyes after inevitably getting poked in the nose by Cleveland or another top seed — there really is no need to wait.

Turns out, what the Pistons are going through right now, just to reach the postseason, already is giving them a taste for what to expect.

"This is how the playoffs feel, man," forward Marcus Morris said after Detroit's pivotal victory at Chicago Saturday. Morris was only guessing, though, since his teams never qualified in his first four NBA seasons. "I'm ready for it. Definitely (beating the Bulls) was one of the biggest games of my career, if not the biggest game of my career."

Pistons vs. Bulls

All five Pistons starters score in double figures as they defeat the Bulls 94-90.

Said Tobias Harris, the trade-deadline pickup from Orlando who also experienced team success for the first time: "It's something that I've always wanted, that type of challenge, and wanted to feel that grit and feel just that passion and what you have to put into it to get there. Winning's not easy in this league, especially a team like us that's fighting for a spot."

Winning does build character and habits, though, both of which have been on display in the Pistons' prelude to springtime basketball. This isn't what Milwaukee experienced a year ago, an unexpected rise from doormat to sixth seed that proved unsustainable this season. This was in the blueprint that Stan Van Gundy unrolled upon arrival in May 2014, though it didn't necessarily include step-by-step instructions.

The Pistons started 5-23 last season as Van Gundy sifted through the rubble. They went 27-27 the rest of the way to finish 32-50. This time around, amid more roster and strategic changes, Detroit ebbed and flowed to sit 27-29 a week after the All-Star Game.

Since then? Van Gundy's crew is 14-7. And the Pistons haven't skidded through three consecutive losses in six weeks — you can survive two in a row in a playoff series but very rarely three.

"We've had great growth over the course of a year," Detroit's coach and president of basketball operations said prior to fending off Chicago. "But it's a learning process. We're certainly not going out there ... with a guy with Jimmy Butler's experience or Pau Gasol's experience in these type of games. Our guys are learning as they go."

Van Gundy added: "Last year at this time, we were just winding it up. It was coming to an end. It's great to be in these games and to be playing games that matter all the way through the season. I think, for the growth of your team, it's essential."

During Detroit's solid March, Van Gundy fretted that its defense and offense too often were out of sync, taking turns in quarters or whole games. But there's a resourcefulness in that as well, one that can serve a playoff team well.

The Pistons shot just 42 percent against the Bulls, got outrebounded and missed 14 of 34 free throws, yet won by four. They have 16 victories on nights they've made fewer than 45 percent of their field-goal attempts and they are 15-13 in two-possession games (decided by six points or less).

Even the absence of an established star and experienced winner — the teammate four other Pistons can look to at crunch time — is a positive in this way: Eight different players have led Detroit in scoring and all five starters have reached double figures 27 times, tops in the NBA. They're 21-6 when they do that.

Center Andre Drummond, a grizzled 22, talked up Detroit's one-for-all Musketeers attack and generally seems to be enjoying the air up above 40 victories. Even on a night when he went 1-for-10 from the foul line, earning him a seat for the final 5:22.

"It's just the intensity of everything," Drummond said. "Everything is just on edge. Every play means something."

The Pistons are feeling that now, with the significance soon to ramp up in about 12 days.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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