Playoff spot secured, Pistons now look to go into postseason on a roll
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Their spot in the playoffs cemented, the Pistons got the weekend off from Stan Van Gundy. But that’s where it stops. They likely won’t join the list of teams sitting their starters for rest in the final two games.
The Pistons host Miami on Tuesday and close the regular season at Cleveland on Wednesday. The Heat, among four teams fighting for the numbers three and four seeds and home-court advantage in the first round, almost surely will come full force. Cleveland, which lost its chance to clinch the No. 1 seed by losing at Chicago on Saturday, might or might not have anything at stake in the finale.
The Pistons are going to play it straight, though Van Gundy will be mindful of taxing his starters unduly.
“Never really coached a game that I didn’t care if we won or lost,” he said after Friday’s win over Washington clinched a postseason berth. “I’ve just never been in that situation. That doesn’t mean that somewhere we might have to take a look, if we’ve got some guys banged up, at minutes. But we’ll play and try to win.”
The Pistons will face Cleveland or Toronto in the playoffs. Cleveland locks down the No. 1 seed with one win – the Cavs host Atlanta, also scratching for home-court advantage, on Monday – or one Toronto loss. The Raptors might not care much about seeding, given that they rested All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry on Friday (and still beat Indiana), but they finish with three lottery teams – road games at New York and Brooklyn sandwiched around a home game with Philadelphia.
Van Gundy isn’t trying to engineer one matchup over the other. But all things considered …
“Both those teams are really good. I’m of the mindset that you always want to finish as high as you can finish,” he said. “It’s not a matter of I’d rather play Toronto, don’t want to play Cleveland. If you have a choice between finishing seventh and eighth, I don’t know, seventh sounds better to me. That’s the way I am.”
The Pistons are 2-1 against Cleveland this season, 1-2 against Toronto. There was no bigger win during the season than the Feb. 22 victory at Cleveland with the Pistons at a season-low two games under .500. It was Tobias Harris’ first start in his third game with the Pistons and started a finishing kick that’s seen them go 16-8.
Either the Cavaliers or Raptors will be favored to win, of course, but the Pistons aren’t going to be a typical seventh or eighth seed. With 43 wins and the chance to get to 45, the Pistons are already ahead of the average wins total for the East’s No. 7 seed over the last 10 full NBA seasons (41.4). That falls to 39 wins for the average No. 8 seed.
And with a winning percentage of .667 since Harris joined the lineup, even 43 wins might undersell the Pistons in their current configuration. They wanted to get to the playoffs with some momentum and it appears that will be the case.
“We’ve played some great games, but it’s a matter of we have to be able to go out there and play 48 minutes of good games,” said Aron Baynes, along for some great playoff rides in San Antonio before joining the Pistons as a free agent. “We need to back it up. Consistency is one thing we’ve got to work on. But over the last month, it’s been getting better and better. We need to be on a roll when we get into the playoffs and that’s what these next couple of games are about.”
Van Gundy has talked for the past month about the value of playing meaningful games down the stretch for a young team with only one starter, Reggie Jackson, with any playoff experience. That would have served the Pistons well going forward no matter how the chase ended. Now the value will be magnified by getting to see what the playoffs are all about firsthand.
“It’s major – definitely major,” Marcus Morris said. “Just for us to get that feel, get that experience of just being in the playoffs. No matter how far we get, being together and being able to jell and see how it is.”
Indiana controls its destiny with regard to the seventh or eighth seeds. If both the Pacers and Pistons win out – Indiana hosts Brooklyn and New York, then wraps up at Milwaukee, three lottery teams – they’d finish with the same records. But that favors Indiana, since the Pacers’ 3-1 season series record against the Pistons gives them the tiebreaker. But where they finish or which opponent they’ll draw pales in significance to the act of cracking the postseason field.
“It’s huge for us. It’s huge for our organization,” Van Gundy said. “We’ve got four starters in there who’ve never been. Huge for them. It’s a great milestone for them to get in and we hope this is just the start of bigger things. But you’ve got to start somewhere and this is it.”