After a string of agonizing losses, next up for Pistons: OKC, the NBA’s hottest team
Layne Murdoch (NBAE/Getty)
AUBURN HILLS – When coaches and players find themselves staring at the ceiling in the dark and lonely moments long after the rest of the house is asleep, you can bet that four, five and six hours earlier they lost a game that came down to the final minute or a last shot.
And the Pistons have had a season’s worth of those games in their six-game losing streak.
There was the two-point loss at Chicago where Reggie Bullock got fouled as he attempted a layup at the buzzer – the NBA admitted as much the next day in its Last 2 Minute report – but never got to shoot free throws. And the game at Toronto where the Pistons erased a double-digit deficit, led in the fourth quarter and were within three points in the last 20 seconds.
Or the one-point loss to Brooklyn when the Pistons had the lead up until the clock read 0.9. And, finally, the most recent insomnia-producing trauma, Wednesday’s overtime loss to Utah in which the Pistons led by nine points with three minutes to play in regulation, saw the Jazz tie the score with less than five seconds to go and have a winning shot miss at the end of regulation and a tying shot bound away as the overtime buzzer blared.
“We just haven’t been able to get a win and they’ve been some demoralizing ones,” Stan Van Gundy said after Friday’s practice, ticking off the agony of defeats past. “They take the wind out of you a little bit more, especially for players, than a (more decisive loss). You think of every single play. ‘If we had done this, we would’ve won. If I had done this on this play, we would’ve won.’
“I’m the same way. One play, one matchup, something better and you get a win. It’s been a really, really tough stretch but it has not shown out here. I haven’t seen a defeated group by any means. And there’s been encouraging signs in every game. We haven’t been able to put it together. Hopefully, we will.”
What Van Gundy has yet to see: any hint of players hoisting the white flag. He sensed his players tightened up over those last three minutes against Utah when they didn’t score a basket when even one would have been enough to protect that nine-point lead in a game where neither team cracked 90 points in regulation. But he hasn’t seen any resignation despite the difficulties caused by the loss of Reggie Jackson – the guy who would have had the ball in his hands down the stretch in all those narrow setbacks – in his players.
“We’ve got to try to free our minds. Their spirit, their competitiveness, their togetherness – all of that – their work habits out here in practice, all really, really good. It’s not like anybody’s out there pouting or haven’t given up on anything, which is encouraging. We just haven’t been able to get a win.”
If it comes Saturday, the Pistons will have earned it. Oklahoma City hovered around .500 for the first few months of the season on the strength of its defense, but the Thunder have since struck a balance offensively – melding star scorers Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony – to elevate them to a top-five unit over the past month.
“This is a talent league,” Van Gundy said. “Teams that talented will lose for short periods of time but they’re not going to lose for long. Oklahoma City has three perennial All-Stars and a very, very good center in Steven Adams. I mean, they’re loaded.”
As fate would have it, the Pistons will try to snap the NBA’s longest current losing streak against the team with the league’s longest current winning streak, also six. The talent league can also be a merciless one.