Auburn Hills — Last season, the Pistons were one of the surprise teams in the NBA playoffs, making the playoffs after an absence of six seasons. They got the No. 8 seed before being swept out in the first round by the eventual-champion Cleveland Cavaliers. Down the stretch, the Pistons had to go 8-4 in their final 12 games to clinch the final postseason spot.
This year, they could be in a similar position. With 12 games to go, the Pistons are 34-36, tied with the Miami Heat, but holding the head-to-head tiebreaker. They’re a half-game behind the Milwaukee Bucks for the No. 7 spot and 11/2 games behind the Indiana Pacers for sixth.
What’s more, the Pistons have a favorable upcoming schedule, with the next seven games coming against teams currently under .500, including the Heat at home and Bucks on the road, which could help their standing.
In many ways, it’s a similar path to the playoffs as last season, but coach Stan Van Gundy sees some key differences.
“Last year, there wasn’t a high level of expectation and we really wanted to win badly but there was no worry about if we didn’t make it — that wasn’t where we were,” he said Monday. “Now, there is a little bit; now they’re going through some pressure.”
The genesis was that playoff performance against the Cavs last season and with some internal player development, the Pistons had higher projections of finishing in the top four or five of the Eastern Conference.
As last year was the first playoff experience for many of the Pistons — without those lofty expectations — then this year is also a learning experience in becoming the hunted instead of just the hunter.
That’s where Van Gundy sees an opportunity for development and growth in a roster with most of the players under 30 years old.
“Last year, we were playing with house money; this is a different situation and important in our growth as a team and organization on how we handle this,” Van Gundy said. “I said (to the team), ‘I’m not going to stand here and tell you there’s no pressure and it doesn’t matter and don’t worry about it.’ That’s not the way it goes and it’s not what the league is about — we have to win.”
Winning won’t be easy, even though the remaining 12-game schedule has its perks:
■ Eight road games — but only two are against teams with winning records
■ Four back-to-backs — but a four-day break before the final five-game stretch
■ Games against similar teams — Pistons could tie the season series with the Bucks and win the tiebreaker with the Heat
Those are challenges that Van Gundy is choosing to view as opportunities for his team to gain experience and to improve their standing for the playoffs. But given their recent missteps in losing the last three games before Sunday’s win over the Phoenix Suns, there’s not a lot of room for error.
“This is going to be really difficult and we have to step up and play better. If that’s putting pressure on you, that’s the way it is,” he said. “You should want pressure in this league because the only people that have pressure are the teams that are good or pretty good.
“This is an entirely different dynamic than last year was. It’s the up and down all year and now, the challenge is to balance that sense of urgency without getting tight. You have to be able to play and that’s something that every NBA player has to learn to deal with.”
Pistons at Nets
Tip-off: 7:30 tonight,
Barclays Center, Brooklyn
Outlook: The Pistons (34-36) begin a string of four straight road games in a seven-day span — all against sub-.500 teams. They’ll have a chance to improve on their No. 8 seed, with 12 games left in the regular season.