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Indianapolis — Hard to see when you're winners in nine of 11 games, but part of the reason the Pistons have been able to rise so rapidly from the basement of the Eastern Conference is due to the numerous games they've played recently.

Playing seven games in 11 days — a stretch the Pistons completed Wednesday in their home loss to New Orleans — takes its toll. No matter how deep the Pistons go down their bench, often playing 11 guys who've all had their moments during a surprising stretch, a price is usually paid.

And fatigue never forgets to collect its payment, be it physical or mental, with Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy a firm believer in the latter for his young team.

"I noticed it the other night. Mentally we weren't very good," Van Gundy said. "We didn't have good physical energy either. We were screwing up plays out of timeouts, we just weren't there. There's a mental grind. That more than anything."

With very little practice time during this streak to correct errors, he's attempting to cut slack as best he knows how — which is not much. He often notes the practice days after the release of Josh Smith, which propelled them to the start of their seven-game win streak.

"We haven't played as well (recently). Other than Toronto where we played three great quarters," he said. "We haven't played as well without the practice. I understand it, (but) it doesn't mean I excuse it. You're a professional, you need to come in here and get it right and concentrate on what you need to do."

"Mentally, they're not at the same level. Eight games in 12 days. Absorb a game plan, apply it. We're still better where we have practice days and we can drill it in their mind."

The slippage was probably the reason why he issued his warning about changing the starting lineup after their lethargic loss to the Pelicans on Wednesday — where he admitted the message sent through the media was intended for his players, to a degree.

Point guard Brandon Jennings addressed the team after the game, an uncommon act for Jennings, but he felt a sense of urgency needed to be communicated to the starting lineup for their slow starts.

"The message was sent in the locker room. Brandon stood up and said it and included himself," Van Gundy said. "I don't ever send a message through the media that I haven't already delivered to them. I may make the point in the media, maybe to drive it home a little more, but it's already been made to them. It's not a behind-their-back type of thing. I'll tell them.

"It's been good because they've put themselves on notice that they need to start better. It hasn't been just me. They realize they have a responsibility to start better than they have been."

Of course, it's led to some exhilarating comebacks from double-digit deficits, perhaps creating an over-reliance on being able to rebound from starting out slow. But as impressive as they have been, living on a steady diet of those will come back to haunt a team that has no margin for error after a miserable 5-23 start.

They'll play Atlanta again Monday, the league's hottest team, after playing the league's second-most miserable squad, the Philadelphia 76ers, on Saturday at the Palace.

It's a challenge of different kinds, where the Pistons have to weather both equally emotionally and physically.

"We're gonna have to play better because teams are not, you're not sneaking up on people," Van Gundy said. "Now people are saying, 'this is a good team' and we saw it from Atlanta and Toronto in the beginning in the game. We saw it from New Orleans, teams are coming after you. We haven't met that challenge, early in games, to that point."

vgoodwill@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/vgoodwill

76ers at Pistons

Tipoff: 7:30 tonight, The Palace, Auburn Hills

TV/radio: FSD/WMGC

Outlook: The 76ers are last in the league in scoring at 90.3 points per game. … The 76ers beat the Pistons at the Palace in overtime, 108-101, on Dec. 6.

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