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Pistons facing tough stretch, starting with hot Spurs

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — The Pistons definitely will get a measuring stick on their progress over the next week with a stretch of games against some of the elite teams in the NBA heading into the halfway point of the season.

In fact, the Pistons (21-16) will face the hottest team in the NBA Tuesday night at The Palace when they entertain the San Antonio Spurs. They also play host to the NBA champion Golden State Warriors Saturday night with a game sandwiched in between at Memphis Thursday.

“It certainly gets you excited as a player and everything else, but the point is it’s still just one win or one loss, not anything bigger than that,” Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said. “But, as players you naturally get excited to play against the best. It’s a tough week, a challenging week, and that will be good for us.”

The Pistons are playing well, heading in with a three-game winning streak and sitting in a sixth-place tie with Indiana in the Eastern Conference, just two games behind second-place Chicago and Toronto. They will play the Bulls at The Palace on Monday, Martin Luther King Day.

The veteran Spurs (32-6) have won 14 of their last 15. They carried a seven-game winning streak into their game at Brooklyn Monday night. Their last loss came on Christmas against the Houston Rockets.

So, the matchup with the Spurs will be a great test for the young Pistons, who have four starters age 26 or under.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich sometimes rests some of his older players on back-to-backs, but Van Gundy will be ready for anything tossed his way.

The Spurs pulled out a 100-99 win over the Knicks on Friday night to improve to 22-0 at home.

Perennial All-Star center Tim Duncan is slowing down at age 39, averaging 9.1 points and 7.9 rebounds in 26 minutes, as is shooting guard Manu Ginobili (10.3 points, 20 minutes) at 38. Point guard Tony Parker (12.5 points, 5.3 assists) is at the end of his prime at age 33, but 6-foot-7, 230-pound small forward Kawhi Leonard (20.7 points, 7.1 rebounds) is having the best year of his career at age 24, and 6-11, 240-pound power forward LaMarcus Aldridge is having a strong season (15.8 points, 8.9 rebounds) at age 30 after playing the first nine years of his career in Portland.

“Look, defensively they are so far ahead of everybody else,” Van Gundy said of the Spurs, who allow just 89.7 points. “They are four points per 100 possessions ahead of the second-best defensive team in the league and that’s an incredible gap, so as much as you worry about stopping them, you have to find some way to get quality shots against what’s by far the best defense in the league.

“They are really, really long and they have great quickness. Parker, (Danny) Green and Kawhi Leonard is as good a perimeter defense in the league and then they have Duncan and LaMarcus behind them and that’s really tough. And, then at the other end of the floor, I mean, you have to really be on your defensive principles and you’re going to have to defend multiple situations because of their ball movement. Their ball movement and pace takes a toll on you. You have to be ready to play at a very high energy level at both ends of the floor. It’s a challenge.”

The Pistons will try to earn a payback at Memphis after the Grizzlies defeated them, 93-92, Dec. 9 at The Palace on a half-court shot.

And, all NBA fans know the story on Golden State, a Stephen Curry-led team which opened the season with 24 straight victories after knocking off LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals last year.

The Warriors have the best backcourt in the league with Curry (29.5 points, 6.5 assists, 162 threes) and Klay Thompson (21.1, 118 threes). Plus, former Michigan State star Draymond Green, a 6-7 power forward, is having an All-Star-type season, averaging 15 points, 9.6 rebounds and 7.4 assists.

Morris could be back

Pistons forward Marcus Morris missed his first game of the season Saturday because of (left) knee tendinitis.

With Morris out, the Pistons had their first alternate starting lineup with rookie Stanley Johnson taking over at small forward and contributing eight points and four rebounds on 4-of-13 shooting in 39 minutes.

Van Gundy was more impressed with the play of backup Darrun Hilliard, who matched Johnson’s output of eight points and four rebounds, but on 3-of-5 shooting in 20 minutes. Hilliard had played a combined 18 minutes in the previous 12 games.

“I was really happy,” Van Gundy said. “It’s tough when you haven’t played in a long time. He really hasn’t played meaningful minutes since his last D-League stint when he went up there (Grand Rapids) with Brandon (Jennings). Then to come out and play like that says a lot about him and the work he puts in and how he stayed ready to go mentally.”

Morris is averaging 14.1 points and 5.3 rebounds and could be back in the lineup against the Spurs. The Pistons had a day off Sunday and Van Gundy held Morris out of practice Monday.

“He felt better today, but he didn’t practice and that was my decision,” said Van Gundy. “I just didn’t see putting him back out there with tendinitis. He felt like he could go, but I figured we’d wait one more day and rest him and wait until tomorrow so we’re hopeful.”

Baynes facing ex-teammates

Pistons backup center Aron Baynes is looking forward to playing against his former teammates with the Spurs.

He is getting valuable minutes off the bench, averaging 7.5 points and six rebounds in 15 minutes over the last four games.

Last season was his best of three in San Antonio for Baynes (6.6 points, 4.5 rebounds in 16 minutes).

“The No. 1 thing I took away is it’s all about competing and playing smart and hard basketball,” Baynes said. “You can’t just play hard basketball and you can’t just play smart basketball. You have to combine the two and when you do that, then you’re in there with the chance to compete with anyone.

“We’ve kind of learned that this year. We go out there and we don’t compete and we can get beat by anyone, but when we go out there and compete and play smart basketball, we can compete with everyone.”

Baynes is eager to play against the best in the league, too.

“This is (one stretch) we’re looking forward to and we’ll see where we are at the end of this, where we stand and what we really need to keep working on,” he said. “It’s something that we’re all looking forward to, the challenge against some great teams we’re coming up against and it’s all within a short stretch. We can’t wait to get out there and compete.”

david.goricki@detroitnews.com

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Spurs at Pistons

Tip-off: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, The Palace, Auburn Hills

TV/radio: FSD/WGMC

Notable: The teams split the season’s series last year with each team winning on the road. It’s the first time the teams have met this season. ... It could be Pistons fans’ last chance to watch Tim Duncan. ... The Spurs have former Detroit Titan Ray McCallum, who scored 10 in 25 minutes in a 123-98 win over Utah last week.