Break can’t come soon enough for weary Pistons – but they need to beat Atlanta first

Blake Griffin and the Pistons hope to beat Atlanta on Wednesday and then recharge – physically and mentally – over the All-Star break
Scott Cunningham (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

DETROIT – The line between very good and very bad defense in the NBA can be imperceptibly fine. The smallest cracks in a defense get blown open by penetrating guards. One player one-half step out of position makes possible a skip pass that a 7-footer with a 3-point stroke exploits.

If a team makes one such mistake on even one-third of its defensive possessions over the course of a 48-minute game, the needle on its vulnerability meter plunges deep into the danger zone. Make two such mistakes on half of all possessions and you’re getting blown out and humiliated.

“It’s a lot of little things,” Anthony Tolliver said after they surrendered 118 points for the second straight game in losing their third straight. “Each of us making one mistake a game adds up to 10, 11, 12 different mistakes that can lose you a game. We just have to play hard and cover up for a lot of the things that we’ve been doing wrong.”

The flaw in that theory, though, is that physical fatigue and mental fatigue often travel in lockstep. The Pistons have been on an emotional roller coaster and a physical endurance challenge simultaneously over the past 2½ weeks. They haven’t had more than one day between games since their Jan. 27 loss to Oklahoma City and crammed in there was the trade for Blake Griffin that shipped out two starters and two more trade-deadline deals that further plunged Stan Van Gundy’s rotation into flux.

Griffin has played seven games in 11 days, all while dealing with the trauma of being uprooted from the only franchise he’d known over nine NBA seasons, being dropped into a Michigan winter and learning routes to the team’s Auburn Hills practice facility and downtown arena – and finding a place to live convenient to both.

No wonder he looked around Monday night and saw fatigue all around him.

”I thought for the first time we looked really tired tonight, at least since I’ve been here,” he said after the loss to New Orleans. “I think a day off tomorrow will be good for us and coming in Wednesday ready and making sure we go into the break on the right foot.”

The compacted schedule has limited Van Gundy’s practices at a time the Pistons needed it most. He’s attempted to straddle the line between installing new sets to take advantage of Griffin’s unique skill set while being mindful of introducing too much, too soon.

“It’s playing him with the right combinations of people and how they have to guard other guys, it’s running the right sets, it’s having some time in the gym to work through some things so that we can execute better,” Van Gundy said. “I think I actually tried to put in too much stuff and we’re not really good at anything. Tomorrow, Wednesday and when we come back from the break, it’s more about paring it down and finding some things that we can be good at that can be the foundation of what we do.”

The Pistons were racing the calendar to the break, winning five straight following the Jan. 29 trade for Griffin, before losing three straight over a four-day span. They’ve fallen three games behind both Philadelphia and Miami for the final playoff spot with 26 games remaining.

Asked if the Pistons needed the All-Star break to get here after Monday’s game, Van Gundy resisted.

“We’ve got a game Wednesday. Enough with that,” he said. “You can’t just limp into the break. We need to get a win and keep ourselves as close into this thing as we can to have a chance to make a run.”

Beating Atlanta at home to send them into the break on Wednesday is almost imperative at this point. Andre Drummond will head to the All-Star game but everybody else gets six days off before the Pistons reconvene for practice Feb. 21 and resume play two days later.

“It will be huge,” Griffin said of the break. “Every team – you look around the league and you hear Golden State talking about (how) they’re mentally fried. If a team that’s lost the least amount of games in the entire league is talking about it, then everybody’s feeling that way. We still have to take care of business and finish out these games. But it will be huge for us to have days off, not only for our bodies but to get in and practice – and a real practice, not just having to go through stuff.”