'Talking doesn't mean anything if you're not putting out effort during the game, and giving ourselves a chance to be in the game, down the stretch,' Pistons Will Bynum said about the team's playoff push. (Bob Levey / Associated Press)
Auburn Hills — When Pistons interim coach John Loyer took over for Maurice Cheeks a few weeks ago, one of his first moves in the first chair was to address the expectation that still hovered through the team’s practice facility:
Qualifying for the NBA playoffs.
With 22 games left, essentially four teams are vying for two final playoff spots, assuming the Brooklyn Nets have gotten their issues together and are firmly planted in the sixth spot. Whoever emerges between Atlanta, Charlotte, Cleveland and yes, the Detroit Pistons, are essentially signing up for target practice — in the form of the right to play the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers in the first round.
“I think you always watch it, anybody that follows the NBA, this is the time of year to position yourself for those eight playoff spots,” Loyer said. “They’re valuable spots. The importance of every game just magnifies.”
The Pistons have gone 3-7 since Loyer took over and sit three full games away from the playoffs, as the Hawks and Bobcats are tied for seventh, with 22 games remaining.
“I pay attention to them all the time,” said Pistons reserve guard Will Bynum with a laugh. “Been paying attention, every day.”
The last time the Pistons made the playoffs, in 2009, Bynum dragged what was a carcass of a team that plummeted through the final month into the postseason. They lost in four to the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round, but Bynum wants that chance again, just to get in the dance.
They don’t have the best perimeter player of the four teams, as that title belongs to Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving. Nor do they possess the best post player, as Bobcats center Al Jefferson showed in two devastating performances right after the All-Star break.
Neither of these teams are good enough to run away and hide, nor are they bad enough to completely fall out of playoff contention. It’s one big pot of mediocre, quite honestly.
The one thing the Pistons have going for them is they likely possess an extra gear — in terms of potential — the other three teams would find a hard time reaching. They beat the Heat and Pacers in their home buildings, the only team of the four to do it.
Of course, that was in December, and the glaring losses to teams like the Orlando Magic and Utah Jazz show the Pistons can play down to their competition better — or worse — than anyone.
While the rest of the outside world is paying attention to the standings in the opposite way, in the form of the popular but rarely ever effective strategy of tanking, the men inside the Pistons locker room view the next six weeks as an opportunity, not a death march.
“We definitely talk about it. But during the game, we have to mean it,” Bynum said. “Talking doesn’t mean anything if you’re not putting out effort during the game, and giving ourselves a chance to be in the game, down the stretch.”
Bynum doesn’t know the exact schedules of the Bobcats, Hawks and Cavaliers, but he knows they have a chance to control their own destiny with two games against the Cavaliers and one against the Hawks — a rescheduled game in April due to a couple inches of snow shutting down Atlanta some time ago.
It’ll be a tough task for the Pistons, having given away their share of games in January when the schedule was lighter. They’ll have to get on the road more than the other three teams, with 14 games away from the Palace, including a four-game Western swing that includes games against the L.A. Clippers and Phoenix Suns, two playoff teams.
Let’s not forget the Pistons will play the Pacers two more times and the Heat once, at the Palace, while six of their eight games in April are on the road, including the season finale in Oklahoma City.
One wouldn’t expect Thunder coach Scott Brooks, who’s close with Cheeks, to show mercy on the last night of the regular season if the Pistons are playing for something.
The Hawks are in full free-fall mode after losing Al Horford, with just one win to their name in the last calendar month, dropping 11 of their last 12 games. They’re currently on a Western trip with Portland, Golden State, the Clippers and Utah Jazz in the next four games.
Fourteen of their last 24 games are against teams with .500 or better marks, and they look like a team that won’t turn it around in time to hold their playoff spot.
“It’s not disappointing, we’re not finished. It’s not over yet,” Bynum said. “That’s a loser’s mentality to be disappointed now and thinking negative thoughts now with everything that’s happened already. We have to take care of business now.”
But the Pistons haven’t done much to inspire much confidence that they’ll take advantage of such an opportunity, outside their ranks.
And the Cavaliers, since firing general manager Chris Grant, have begun to surge, going 9-6 in February. And since Irving touches the ball on every play, he has the chance to have the biggest affect on a game — even moreso than Pistons center Andre Drummond, who’s showing signs of progressing sooner rather than later.
Loyer said a two- or three-game winning streak can put one of these teams in an advantageous position, and it’s not an easy task to say which one will do such a thing.
Bynum for one, is tired of the locker room rhetoric.
“I’m not into talking, I’m into showing,” he said.