Auburn Hills — The Pistons need to get in, desperately. They need to break the six-season playoff drought and remind fans what April basketball is about. And to do it, they’ll need to do it like this.
Not pretty. Not flashy. Not easy.
The Pistons got a gift Tuesday night when the Thunder opted to rest Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka, and they had to make sure they accepted it. They did in a gut-it-out way, using determined defense to beat Oklahoma City 88-82.
The Pistons (40-35), dare I say, are in good shape to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2009. They actually bumped up to the seventh seed, a half-game ahead of the Pacers and 2.5 ahead of the Bulls. The Pistons are grinding it out, 6-2 on their nine-game homestand, and there haven’t been many freebies.
This was a slugfest, and a timely test. Reggie Jackson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope combined to shoot 7-for-31, and if the pre-contending Pistons got that type of production from their backcourt, they’d lose by approximately 30. This time, they outscored the Thunder 25-9 in the third quarter. This time, when their 15-point lead was sliced to one with 5:05 left, they clamped down, which is better than seizing up.
Noted for their absence
This is where I’m compelled to reiterate the circumstance: Durant wasn’t playing.
This is where I’m compelled to note the other circumstance: Russell Westbrook was playing.
That’s why you don’t have to downplay what the Pistons did, unless you’re so inclined. Caldwell-Pope is their defensive stopper and he helped hold Westbrook to 8-for-28 shooting. For a team ranked 22nd in the league in field-goal defense, this was an important step for the Pistons, who gradually seem to be accepting a stark reality. To be a playoff team – or to beat a playoff team – you have to be able to win with defense more often than not.
“I thought (the Pistons) fought really, really, really hard, because it’s a really frustrating game when you can’t make shots,” Stan Van Gundy said. “For them to hang in there and fight the way they did, I’m proud of them. And we’re gonna need to continue to do that, and at the same time, play better.”
Make no mistake, the Pistons aren’t in the clear, not even close. They’re still learning how to fight through tight games against good opponents, but they’re recognizing what it takes. Andre Drummond has been more aggressive defending the rim, and added his standard 15 rebounds.
The Pistons are tugging between two personas right now, and the challenge is to accept the tougher one. Jackson is a superior offensive player but can get raggedy at times, and he committed four of the Pistons’ 16 turnovers.
He also can be ruthless when it counts. Jackson has struggled with his shot on the home stand but in the final 90 seconds Tuesday night, he made the plays to beat his former team. His crossover move for a dunk made it 82-77, and he hit four straight free throws to close it out. With a second left, Jackson did a complete circuit around the court, both arms raised to exhort the crowd. That annoyed Westbrook and Thunder players, who griped that it was an unnecessarily excessive display.
Breathe in ...
Well, it appears the Pistons officially have gotten a whiff of the playoffs, and they’ll need to inhale deeply.
“It’s playoff atmosphere, and hopefully we get used to it,” Jackson said. “This is what playoff games are about. You’re not gonna have as many possessions, and you gotta find a way to get stops. It’s all about defense, and I think we did a great job letting our defense ignite our offense.”
The Pistons have the athletes to play defense, with a potentially imposing frontline – 6-foot-11 Drummond, 6-9 Marcus Morris, 6-9 Tobias Harris. Van Gundy and GM Jeff Bower have done a fine job collecting players and turning the Pistons into playoff contenders in less than two years. Taking the next step will require more on-court ferocity and composure.
They’re getting more from Drummond, and feisty minutes from backup Aron Baynes. And they’re getting consistently good defense from Caldwell-Pope, and teammates recognize the impact.
“(Westbrook) is gonna get his numbers, but I think we made it tough on him,” Drummond said. “(KCP) is our defensive guy, and in crunch time, he turns it up a notch.”
Obviously, the Pistons have to shoot better than this — 37.9 percent — and make more than four of 19 three-pointers. But it’s funny the way hard-nosed defense and solid rebounding can make up for all those missed shots.
Six of the Pistons’ final seven games are against playoff-type teams, and they can’t count on the Bulls or anyone else collapsing around them. This will have to be earned, and I think they’ll earn it. The franchise certainly needs it, because it’s been way too quiet around the Palace in April.