Niyo: Playoff peril puts Pistons, Wings on notice
Auburn Hills — One team is trying to keep a streak alive.
The other is trying to kill one.
And if you were laying odds, well, let’s just say the Red Wings, owners of the longest active playoff streak in major U.S. pro sports, have been there and done that before.
The Pistons haven’t. And they won’t if they keep laying eggs like this and expecting them to hatch.
But they couldn’t — or wouldn’t — argue with the end result Monday, a bench-clearing celebration after Andre Drummond’s tip-in with 2.1 seconds left let Detroit to escape with a 92-91 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks at The Palace.
The Pistons, chasing their first postseason berth in seven years, began the night percentage points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, effectively tied for eighth place with the Bulls and a half-game behind the Pacers in seventh.
They ended it in the same spot, though they seemed determined to take an embarrassing step back for most of the night as they trailed the lottery-bound Bucks for all but 2-1/2 minutes in this one.
Afterward, Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy readily admitted his team had stolen one.
“We just hung in there,” he said. “And if you hang in there, sometimes you get a chance to get lucky. And we got lucky there at the end.”
Streak on the line
The Red Wings could use a little good fortune themselves as they hit the ice again tonight in Tampa, clinging to the final wild-card spot in the East, just one point up on the Philadelphia Flyers, who have a game in hand. They’re fresh off a comeback win of their own, rallying from a two-goal deficit for a 5-3 win at Florida on Saturday night. But with 10 games to play, and the Flyers showing no signs of letting up, they know they’ll need several more just like it.
“Every game out here is going to be huge for us,” Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg said.
Every result will be magnified, too. Because the stage is all theirs now, with the Tigers’ opener still two weeks away and Michigan and Michigan State eliminated from the NCAA Tournament in the first round for the first time since 2006. And because this city’s sports fans have grown accustomed to springtime playoff entertainment.
The last time the Red Wings didn’t make the postseason — excluding the NHL lockout in 2005 — the Pistons’ Bad Boys were busy winning their second straight NBA title in 1990. And to find the last time neither team made it you have to go all the way back to 1983, a couple months before the Red Wings drafted Steve Yzerman and the Pistons hired Chuck Daly.
It’s the second-longest active streak for any city, behind only the New York City-New Jersey metro area, which boasts five teams and a run that’ll hit 50 years this spring, dating to the end of the Original Six era.
The only current member of the Pistons who was even alive in 1983 is backup point guard Steve Blake, who was 3. Van Gundy was an assistant at the University of Vermont then. And for a while Monday, the Pistons’ boss probably wished he was again, watching his starters sleepwalk through the start of another game and his team defend only when forced to late.
The Bucks, now 9-27 on the road, were playing the second game of a back-to-back after losing Sunday night at home to Utah. But it was the Pistons who looked tired, or disinterested — Drummond in particular — as they fell behind by double digits early. Fifteen minutes in, they trailed by 17, and Van Gundy had the look of a man resigned to his fate.
“Look, I want this to be a very positive press conference,” Van Gundy said after his team had won its second in a row despite allowing an opponent to shoot better than 50 percent. “But I can’t sit here and tell you we defended. We didn’t.”
Welcome to the grind
Earlier in the day, Van Gundy, who’d never missed the playoffs as an NBA head coach until his first season in Detroit last spring, sat there and talked about this playoff push and what it all meant.
“Our guys know every game is important,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a matter of our guys understanding — or not understanding — the importance of games with 12 games to go. It’s a matter of playing well and getting the job done.”
Still, therein lies the difference between these teams, and maybe the difference in the end. The Red Wings have gotten it done before, led by veterans who’ve won Stanley Cups and younger core players who’ve both experienced the playoffs and, just as important, the grind to get there.
“It’s going to be hard until the end, but we’ve been here,” the Red Wings’ Tomas Tatar said after Saturday’s win, “and I think that’s good experience to have.”
Van Gundy’s team doesn’t have much of it, obviously. Of the Pistons’ starters, only Jackson has any playoff experience — two years as a reserve with Oklahoma City. Drummond, the team’s lone All-Star, has known nothing but losing in his young NBA career.
“They’re our key guys and they understand that,” Van Gundy said. “They’re going through it the first time. Reggie and I had that talk the very day he came to Detroit last year. He wants to be the man and I said, ‘A lot of people wish for that until they find out what it’s all about.’ ”
We’re all about to find out now. And it was Jackson who probably said it best Monday, when asked to sum up his first year as a full-time starter.
He politely declined, more than once.
“We’ll see,” he said, smiling. “I’ll get back to you in mid-April on that one.”