Niyo: Blue Christmas for sloppy Pistons?

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Reggie Jackson

Auburn Hills — The ball was loose, skidding in the other direction, not unlike this Pistons season. And Reggie Jackson, determined not to let it get away, went diving for it. He was too late, sliding with the ball into the stanchion under the basket, but the effort was there, and it was applauded by the crowd at The Palace of Auburn Hills on Wednesday.

Even though the result wasn’t, as the Pistons dropped their fourth consecutive game, 98-86, to Memphis, this was noteworthy, they all agreed.

“It’s a stepping stone in the right direction,” Jackson nodded afterward, “to trying to get back to who we are.”

But if that’s true, if this was a stepping stone — a game that saw the Pistons shoot 36 percent and finish with as many turnovers (17) as assists in another double-digit defeat — then this could be a much more difficult path than anybody imagined for a team many expected to emerge as legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference.

The loss dropped Detroit to 14-17 overall and 11th place in the East more than one-third of the way through the regular season. And while that’s still only a game out of eighth, the upcoming schedule certainly is no holiday, with the league’s two best teams — and last year’s NBA finalists — coming to town. Friday, it’s Golden State playing the Palace, and Monday it’ll be Cleveland. Merry Christmas, indeed.

Yet when a reporter noted how daunting that seemed, in the middle of a postgame scrum Wednesday night, Jackson raised an eyebrow in response, saying, “Is there a question in that?”

There was, actually, and it’s essentially this: Can you see the light at the end of the tunnel?

“We’ll see how tough it is when we see those teams,” Jackson continued. “We know they’re good teams in the league, but we’re still a confident group.”

They just don’t look like it on the court right now, with too many head fakes leading to head shakes and, at one point Wednesday, their exasperated head coach turning around and burying his head in his seat on the Pistons’ bench.

Which prompted the obvious — and honest — question afterward: Was this really progress?

“It is, but it doesn’t feel like it,” Stan Van Gundy said. “It’s just frustrating. That (game) just added to the frustration. Our guys are just getting so frustrated offensively. But we definitely competed harder, there’s no question about that. … We just couldn’t score.”

Where’s the offense?

But why not? That’s the befuddling part for the Pistons, a team that seemed to find an offensive groove late last season and brought back largely the same group — with a supposedly upgraded bench — this fall after finally ending the franchise’s six-year postseason drought.

Yet thanks to a preseason injury to Jackson that kneecapped the Pistons out of the gate, and the sluggish, sloppy play that has marked his return to the lineup this month — Detroit is 3-7 in that span — everyone is left wondering where to turn next.

Pistons hit difficult stretch with Warriors, Cavs on deck

The Pistons, with an offense designed to spread the floor, rank 29th in the NBA in 3-point shooting at 25.2 percent. They’re 26th in assist ratio, and in the bottom third of the league in offensive efficiency among scores of other categories.

“That lineup, for whatever reason — not looking to blame anybody — that lineup just hasn’t been good,” Van Gundy said after a short, up-tempo practice Thursday. “We’ve gone 10 games now that starting lineup and it just has not been good. And it wasn’t playing well when Ish (Smith) was starting with that group, too.”

Van Gundy planned to alter that group for the first time Wednesday, moving forward Jon Leuer up with the first unit, likely in place of Tobias Harris, the regular who seems to have been affected most by Jackson’s return. But a car accident involving Leuer early Wednesday — he missed the morning shootaround but still played 30 minutes off the bench against the Grizzlies -— postponed those plans until Friday.

Players not panicking

In the meantime, the players are all still saying the right things publicly, even after Van Gundy scoffed at the Pistons’ players-only meeting last weekend following an embarrassing blowout in Chicago.

Center Andre Drummond talked about the need to “play as hard as we can at all times,” something the Pistons did a better job of in Wednesday’s loss.

Jackson still hasn’t found his pick-and-roll explosiveness, but after an exaggerated pass-first display in Chicago, he knows he has to find a happy medium for the team.

And it was Marcus Morris, coming off a 1-for-11 shooting night against Memphis, who shrugged off the doom-and-gloom talk, saying, “Just as fast as we lost these four, we can win 10. It can turn around as fast as it went bad.”

Bad news is, the league’s two best teams can quickly turn this into something worse. @JohnNiyo