Down to the wire for Pistons: ‘Tomorrow night is like Game 7 for us’
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AUBURN HILLS – From their coach to their All-Star to their fresh faces and rookies, the Pistons have touted their resilience all season. Now the rubber meets the road.
Their resilience is about to get its sternest test yet – and if they fail this one, their last test of the season. With two games left, the stakes have come into focus. Go 2-0 and the Pistons are in. Any less than that and their fate goes to the hands of others, few of which are offering much cooperation lately.
“We’ve created this. Two games for our season,” Dwane Casey said after the final practice – of the regular season, at least – Monday. “Tomorrow night is like Game 7 for us.”
Sunday’s loss to Charlotte pared the Pistons’ margin for error to the nub while also keeping alive both the Hornets’ and Miami Heat’s chances. The Pistons get in for sure with two wins, but they can no longer get as high as the No. 6 seed. If they win out and Charlotte beats Orlando in their finale, the Pistons would be the No. 7 seed. If they win out and Orlando beats Charlotte, they’d be the No. 8 seed.
If they split and both Miami – which hosts Philadelphia on Tuesday and closes at Brooklyn on Wednesday – and Charlotte match their 40 wins in a three-team tie, Charlotte would win the tiebreaker. If they split and tie with only Charlotte, again the Hornets would win the tiebreaker. If they split and tie with Miami, the Pistons would win the tiebreaker.
Bottom line, they’d better beat a 32-win Memphis in the home finale on Tuesday and then beat a 16-win New York at Madison Square Garden in the Wednesday closer and leave nothing to chance.
But they should have beaten Charlotte, too, with the chance to clinch a berth and allow Blake Griffin to spend the rest of the week rehabilitating his injured left knee. The previous three losses – two without Griffin in the lineup, two of them on the road, all of them against certain playoff teams – could be rationalized away. Losing under Sunday’s circumstances stings and the danger for Casey is having it linger and erode confidence at a time the Pistons need clear minds.
“You still have two games to go to make the playoffs,” Casey said. “There’s still something to be playing for. It shouldn’t linger at all. This time of year, you’ve got to bounce back. If we’re serious about making the playoffs, we will bounce back.”
Their cause would get a boost if Griffin is more comfortable than he appeared in Sunday’s game when his knee injury bothered him noticeably. Good news on that front: Casey said Griffin told him that he felt better on Monday than he did Sunday. Memphis won’t have Jonas Valanciunas and it’s unlikely Mike Conley will play on Tuesday after sitting out Sunday’s loss to Dallas with an ankle injury. If he plays again this season, it almost certainly will be in Wednesday’s finale in what could be Conley’s last Memphis home game. The Pistons are a 7½-point favorite and they’ll likely be similarly favored at New York.
But it’s the rare night in the NBA when somebody with no business winning does, in fact, win. The Grizzlies and Knicks are both using a mix of players with proven NBA resumes and young players eager to establish themselves for future opportunities and that can create a dangerous set of circumstances for a team feeling the pressure of do-or-die reality. Casey is banking on the consistency of approach he’s preached from training camp on to put the Pistons on comfortable ground in the two biggest games of their season.
“We’ve been doing that all year,” he said. “My approach has been consistent the entire season. Every game’s important. Every game, every possession is important. And when you do that, hopefully it does take the pressure off in this situation. We’re professionals. We’ve got to be able to handle the pressure. We have to embrace it. Right now, this time of year should be fun.”