Playoff push: The 5 red-letter games remaining for the Pistons, including one up next
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OAKLAND – The cushion the Pistons built for themselves on the strength of a 12-2 run through the schedule has all but evaporated. After they beat Chicago on March 11 to push their record to 34-31, the Pistons led Brooklyn by a half-game, Miami by 3½ and Orlando and Charlotte by 4½.
Back-to-back losses to two of the top four teams in the West, Portland and Golden State, means the Pistons have gone 3-5 since then. Brooklyn got a win it desperately needed over the Pistons ahead of seven consecutive road games and Miami turned itself around by beating the Pistons two nights later.
It’s been a slog ever since. And it’s not going to get appreciably easier. With nine games remaining, the Pistons likely need to squeeze out four or five wins to ensure a playoff berth. Brooklyn is now a game ahead of the Pistons as the No. 6 seed, Miami a game behind them at No. 8, Orlando and Charlotte two and three games behind them, respectively.
Every win counts as one, but some games will carry a little more weight than others. Here’s a look at the five most important games remaining for the Pistons:
- ORLANDO on Thursday – Coaches are always leery of the first game at home after a long road trip, especially one out West that requires dealing with changing time zones. The Pistons won’t get home and to bed until nearly dawn on Wednesday – coming off of three games in four nights against three of the top four teams in the West. The next day they’ll catch an Orlando team that took advantage of a soft spot in its schedule – the Magic went 5-2, including four straight wins, against seven consecutive lottery-bound teams – to pull within a game of the last playoff spot. That means a two-game swing is on the line against the team with the most likely shot at costing the Pistons a playoff berth. And if it comes down to it, a win over Orlando would give the Pistons the tiebreaker by virtue of a 3-1 edge in the season series.
- CHARLOTTE on April 7 – The Hornets looked dead in the playoff race with a 31-39 record after losing to Philadelphia last week, but they’ve given themselves a shot with three straight wins – including a most improbable weekend back to back that started with a comeback from 18 down in the second half to overtake Boston followed by Sunday’s miracle at Toronto won on Jeremy Lamb’s banked triple from the other side of mid-court at the buzzer. The Hornets already own the tiebreaker over the Pistons by virtue of a 3-0 record against them, so their best chance to sneak into the field is catching the Pistons. That will give Charlotte extra incentive to come into Litlte Caesars Arena with its hair on fire – if the Hornets can make up more ground over the next 13 days.
- INDIANA on April 3 – The Pacers have held up better than anyone reasonably expected after losing Victor Oladipo for the season with a late January knee injury. The Pistons get them in a home-and-home set – at Indiana on Monday, home two days later – and grabbing every home win will be critical, especially against conference opponents. The Pistons currently hold the tiebreaker edge over Miami – even though the teams finished their season series tied 2-2 – based on a better Eastern Conference record. The Pistons (25-22 vs. Eastern teams to Miami’s 21-24) have just five remaining conference games compared to Miami’s seven. Grabbing every conference win possible will be important if it comes to a tiebreaker scenario with the Heat for the last playoff spot – or to avoid a draw against Milwaukee, the runaway leader for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
- MEMPHIS on April 9 – It isn’t a conference game, but as jammed as the East race has become it’s hard to conceive of a scenario that will render the home finale meaningless for the Pistons. The Grizzlies will have nothing at stake, though they’ve been playing hard and relatively well with recent wins over Portland, Utah and Houston. They took Orlando to overtime even without Mike Conley last week and beat the Magic earlier this month. It’s a good bet that Conley will sit out against the Pistons in favor of playing at home against Golden State the following night in the regular-season finale. If the Pistons need a win to clinch a berth or prevent elimination, getting a lottery team at home without its best player is about the best you could hope to get. The Pistons need to bank that win.
- At DENVER on Tuesday – It’s not a do-or-die game, but a win at Denver would do wonders for the psyche of a team that is battling physical and emotional fatigue. It was a long climb out of the hole the Pistons dug for themselves during the injury-riddled months of December and January when the schedule was unrelenting. They clawed back from seven games under .500 to go to three games over, but a loss at Denver drops them back to even. The bad news: Denver will have the same motivation for atonement as Golden State did when it played the Pistons 24 hours after a humiliating 35-point home loss to Dallas. The Nuggets, who’d won six straight, got smoked to wrap up a four-game road trip in losing at Indiana by 36 points on Sunday. There’s a reason coaches are wary of the last game of a road trip – or what the Pistons face in this one at Denver.