Auburn Hills — In a matter of hours Wednesday, the Detroit Pistons went from having a chance to tie the Indiana Pacers for sixth place in the Eastern Conference, to being tied for seventh, but only a game from being out of playoff position altogether.
Following their loss to the Indiana Pacers, the Pistons were in an unstable spot. But in the final five weeks of the regular season, it’s a precarious position that is likely to change almost daily down the stretch over Detroit’s remaining 17 games.
In the Eastern Conference playoff race, entering Friday’s games, a margin of 2.5 games separates the ninth-place tie between the Miami Heat and Milwaukee Bucks from the sixth-place Pacers, with the Pistons and Chicago Bulls smashed in between.
With everything so fluid, the Pistons are starting to gain some consistency, winning 11 of their last 17. There is no looking at the standings, though, as there are too many teams in contention to get complacent.
“If you’re being realistic, you could very easily be anywhere from sixth to 11th or maybe even 12th — there’s not a whole lot separating those teams,” Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said. “You can’t be looking ahead and thinking about things that aren’t there right now; you just have to play right now and try to win.”
Going into Friday’s games, the Pistons have a 74-percent chance to make the playoffs, according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index. Of their 17 remaining games, the Pistons have just seven against teams with winning records — and only three of those are on the road.
It’s a favorable schedule, if the Pistons can continue their good play at The Palace, where they have a 21-12 mark, including an impressive 106-101 win over the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday.
“I like their chances of making it to the playoffs. If they got better on the road, that definitely would help,” said Marc Spears, senior NBA writer for ESPN’s The Undefeated. “The bottom of the Eastern Conference from the 5 to 10 spot looks like it’s up for grabs and whoever has a hot run toward the end of the season is going to nab a spot.”
The Pistons have the schedule to pull off such a run. Even with a 9-8 finish, they would be 41-41, likely good enough to make the postseason. Last year, they were 44-38 and managed only an 8 seed; this season, the bar may not be as high for a playoff spot.
After being swept in the first round against the Cavs, likely the top seed again this year, the Pistons are looking to have a longer run — against a different opponent.
“You don’t want Cleveland; you want to get out of that 8 spot if you can,” former Piston and current ESPN analyst Chauncey Billups told The Detroit News. “In the other (spots), you don’t know. Toronto got better at the deadline but the (Kyle Lowry) is out.
“You might want to catch a team like that, especially if he comes back and is not on top of his game.”
In the playoffs, the top seed plays the eighth seed, No. 2 plays No. 7, No. 3 plays No. 6 and No. 4 plays No. 5. If the Pistons stay in the seventh spot, they could face the Celtics, Wizards or Raptors.
That they’re even below .500 and fighting for a playoff spot is something of a disappointment, after they were many experts’ pick to make a dramatic move upward in the East.
“The Pistons are really talented; I didn’t anticipate them being in this position at this part of the season. I thought they’d be in the 5 or 6 (seed) range,” Billups said.
“When it gets tough, the one thing they haven’t been able to do that is critical is bite down and get four or five stops in a row and score when the game is on the line.”
The biggest challenges have been getting consistent play from the starting lineup and trying to get production from Reggie Jackson, who had a setback because of knee tendinitis, which kept him out of the first 21 games. He’s bounced back somewhat, but hasn’t gotten back to the form that made him one of the best fourth-quarter finishers in the NBA last season. He’s still not back at 100 percent and the Pistons’ woes are tied — at least loosely — to Jackson’s struggles.
While backup Ish Smith has filled in nicely for Jackson, the Pistons still have to be more consistent to be trending upward toward the postseason.
“Point-guard play in the NBA is instrumental and just about every team has a good point guard,” Spears said. “If they’re going to make any noise in the playoffs, it has to be strong from that standpoint.
“With all due respect to Ish Smith, he’s a lifelong backup in this league and they’re going to need Reggie to step up and be the guy who got the big money and confidence from the franchise to get healthy, play great and help that playoff push.”
Van Gundy kept the roster intact, rather than trying to shake things up at the trade deadline. Jackson’s name was tossed about at the deadline, but in the past few games, he’s looked better.
That the Pistons didn’t make any changes is an indication that Van Gundy thinks he has the pieces to get to the playoffs as constituted.
“The thing that concerns me about Detroit is they made no moves to change the malaise,” said Michael Lee, NBA senior writer for Yahoo’s The Vertical.
With all the jockeying, the team to watch could be the Heat, who have surged. Since a horrific 11-30 start, they’ve won 20 of 24 — buoyed by a 13-game win streak — and are on the cusp of one of the biggest turnarounds in recent decades.
“Miami is breaking through because they’re the most consistent — and (20 wins in 24 games) is not a fluke,” Lee said. “They beat Cleveland and Golden State during that stretch. They can sneak in and take one of those spots.”
Despite the loss of Chris Bosh, the Heat have jelled and played well behind Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters. The Heat (31-34) have a tough schedule remaining, finishing with 10 games against playoff teams in the last 17. That includes a brutal final four games: at Toronto, at Washington, versus Cleveland and against Washington.
Even the Bucks (30-33), who have lost Jabari Parker for the remainder of the season to an injury, have a shot. But 12 of their final 19 games are on the road, with a six-game western swing included.
“It could come to the last game and this is a season where if the Pistons don’t make it, you look at the many games they probably should have won,” Spears said. “Every game matters when you’re this close to being in or out of the playoffs.
“Essentially, from 6 to 11, teams have a shot, and every game you have to play your season depends on it, because ultimately, it can.”
Sizing up the contenders
The five likely contenders for the final three playoff spots in the East are separated by 2.5 games. Here’s a snapshot of the path ahead for each team (playoff chance based off ESPN Basketball Power Index through Thursday’s games):
Games remaining: 18 (9 home, 9 road)
Projected playoff chance: 82 percent
Toughest games left: 2 at TOR, vs. TOR, vs UTA, at BOS, at CLE, vs ATL
Games remaining: 17 (8 home, 9 road)
Projected playoff chance: 74 percent
Toughest games left: at CLE, vs. UTA, 2 vs. TOR, at HOU, vs. WAS
Games remaining: 18 (9 home, 9 road)
Projected playoff chance: 54 percent
Toughest games left: vs HOU, at BOS, at WAS, vs UTA, at TOR, vs CLE
Games remaining: 17 (10 home, 7 road)
Projected playoff chance: 45 percent
Toughest games left: 2 vs. TOR, at IND, at BOS, at TOR; at WAS, vs. WAS, vs. CLE
Games remaining: 19 (7 home, 12 road)
Projected playoff chance: 30 percent
Toughest games left: vs. IND, at MEM, at LAC, at GS, 2 at BOS, at IND