Auburn Hills — It's hard to understand how we ended up here, with people and traffic and noise at The Palace again, and not just because LeBron James was in town. This was the convergence of two notable turnarounds, one fully expected, the other still being defined.
One turnaround clearly is real, as James and the Cavaliers pulled away to beat the Pistons 102-93 Tuesday night. With 17 victories in 19 games, the Cavs have reestablished themselves as championship heavyweights. The authenticity of the other turnaround is tested nightly, but the Pistons' competitiveness looks legitimate.
There was a hint of nostalgia in the arena, mostly for good reasons. Tayshaun Prince was back, not as a gimmick but as a guy who can help. When newly acquired Reggie Jackson hit three free throws with a second remaining in the first half to put the Pistons on top 62-53, anything seemed possible.
The lead grew to 14 early in the second half and fans were on their feet like old times, until James and his teammates made them sit. Of course, the Cavaliers can spoil any revival, especially with James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love getting more comfortable. That's what happened here, as James toyed around and messed around, finishing with 19 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists and nine turnovers. Love hit eight 3-pointers, and the Pistons wobbled badly in the fourth quarter.
This was not an end game for the Pistons, but an enlightening one.
"I thought some of our young guys played really well, that was encouraging," Stan Van Gundy said. "It was a really tough loss, a bad last 18 minutes, but there were a lot of positive things in that game. That team has been rolling more than any team in the league, just blowing everybody out."
Without a superstar, the Pistons need to make a whole lot of shots and avoid a whole lot of turnovers, and couldn't do either. Their effort was solid and their spirit was willing, and Jackson (22 points, nine assists, eight rebounds) absolutely is worth watching.
There's still plenty to watch, in periodic riveting bursts. Van Gundy is the energetic orchestrator, and like any fretting coach, he'd rather be stuck in the parking lot without his car keys than discuss playoff possibilities. But the numbers aren't lying. In the first 28 games of the season, the Pistons were 5-23. In the 29 games since, they're 18-11, just outside the playoff picture.
Van Gundy never has missed the playoffs as a head coach, and is showing he can shape a roster when also in charge of personnel. Owner Tom Gores offered Van Gundy full power as an inducement to fix the mess, and it was a smart move. Now the Pistons have an unquestioned leader at the most important levels — ownership, management and coach.
They're collecting pieces for the right prices in the right places. Jackson is an intriguing example, although seasoning can't be accomplished in one season.
"As long as we play at a high intensity and continue to fight and scratch and kick and do what it takes to be competitive, we'll do well," Jackson said. "We're gonna try to find ways to stop being so up and down. I was happy with our effort, but we gotta work on our lulls."
In other words, slow the roll, people. The Pistons are playoff contenders, far from championship contenders. To be competitive in Van Gundy's first season is fairly remarkable, considering the Pistons lost Brandon Jennings for the season and dumped one-time alleged centerpiece Josh Smith.
Reasons to believe
The Cavaliers are on a different plane, climbing toward the top of the Eastern Conference as James regains his standard brilliance. It wasn't that long ago new coach David Blatt was under heat and Love was under scrutiny, and James was dealing with back and knee injuries that sidelined him for eight games. The Cavs were 1-7 without him.
Now, they just added big man Kendrick Perkins on a buyout, and look like the contender they were supposed to be. Afterward, James called the big deficit and the rally an "eye-opener." Beforehand, he said he sees in the Pistons what others see.
"They have some very good pieces," James said. "I think Reggie Jackson helps them out a lot, brings them another attack guy that can push the ball. Obviously with (Andre) Drummond and (Greg) Monroe, it's a good test for us."
For the first time since the Pistons stopped going to the playoffs six years ago, the development of key players appears to be pointing upward. Consider that Jackson, who brings size and aggressiveness, is only 24. Drummond, 21, and Monroe, 24, form one of the best big-man tandems. And Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, 22, is finding his shot and his confidence.
Keeping Monroe, who will be an unrestricted free agent, won't be easy. But if it doesn't work out, you're allowed to have faith that Van Gundy and GM Jeff Bower, with the financial backing of Gores, will spend the money appropriately.
The Pistons haven't experienced much luck, losing their No. 1 pick last spring because of the lottery, releasing Smith because they had little choice, then losing Jennings to an Achilles injury. Van Gundy noted he and his staff essentially have coached four different teams this season — the Smith group, then the Jennings group, then the D.J. Augustin group, now the Jackson five (sorry).
"We knew giving up continuity (with all the deals) could be a problem, but we've got bigger goals," Van Gundy said. "Clearly, the first thing you look for is talent. And then we want what everybody wants, but we've really tried to be strict about it – solid, high-character, team-oriented guys. Because what we went through at 5-23, if you don't have high-character guys, you're gonna have a lot of problems."
These days, the Pistons actually are solving more problems than they're creating. And with each halting step forward, the next step isn't as far away.