The Monday Drive: Pistons getting hot at just right time

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
Tobias Harris

What a difference a week makes.

The Pistons were hearing the faint sounds of the death knell after a five-game skid and were embarking on a tough road stretch, including games against East’s top two teams, the Cavaliers and Raptors.

Not a problem.

They beat the Cavs handily and Sunday’s win at The Palace over the Raptors is the fourth straight for the Pistons (31-29), who are now the hottest team in the East — seems weird to say, doesn’t it? — and are creeping up the standings.

Despite some key injuries and a tough schedule, things are coming together for the Pistons, at just the right time.

The Monday Drive fuels up for another road trip to one of the West’s top teams, the San Antonio Spurs, who haven’t lost at home (28-0) this season. Here are this week’s observations:

1. With 22 games left, the Pistons are still in it. They’re a half-game out of the No. 6 seed and four games from the No. 3 seed — that’s how tight the race in the East has become. They have a promising second half of March — with a nine-game homestand following their road trek. That could set up to be favorable, with five of those against teams in playoff position.

2. The Pistons have won all four games since Tobias Harris joined the starting lineup. It could be coincidence, but the prevailing thought is that the ball moves a bit better with Harris playing with the starters. He’s averaged 16.3 points in the last four games and was as effective off the bench (18.5 points) in his first two games. It’s an early glimpse into Stan Van Gundy’s vision of having a young core with the early returns showing that Harris is fitting in nicely.

3. Justin Harper is making the most of his 10-day contract. He’s not just a “practice body” who languishes on the bench and never sees game action. Harper has played in the last three games and was a catalyst in Sunday’s win, after Harris got in early foul trouble and Harper had to play some critical minutes. He answered with a pair of 3-pointers, on the way to nine points. He was unafraid to shoot and didn’t seem out of place in defending the Raptors’ starters.

Pistons making playoff push, win 4th straight

4. Jodie Meeks is starting to pick up his activity level after being shut down to let his fractured foot heal properly. He shot some jumpers before Sunday’s game and didn’t seem to have restrictions. Meeks was set to be re-examined by doctors this week to determine whether he could resume full practice activity. He played in the first two games of the season, but hasn’t seen game action since.

5. The Pistons looked to be in dire straits after rookie Stanley Johnson suffered a shoulder sprain against the Cavaliers. He’s been the sixth man off the bench, but the reserves have done a good job picking up the slack since Johnson and Anthony Tolliver (knee sprain) have been out. Darrun Hilliard has played some of the minutes at backup guard to ease the strain on the bench.

6. It’s another small sample size, but Reggie Bullock looks to have gotten back into a groove. With Johnson out, Bullock has averaged 10.6 points in the last three games, including 54 percent (7-of-13) on 3-pointers. He had totaled six points in playing sparingly in 19 games up to last week, but he’s worked his way into a critical role, at least until either Johnson or Tolliver can return to the lineup.

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7. Warriors guard Steph Curry is absolutely ridiculous. As if the 51 points (with 10 triples) against the Magic on Thursday wasn’t absurd enough, he followed with 46 points (and 12 threes) against the Thunder. He launched final 3-pointer in overtime from around Nova Scotia and it fell. Who does that? How can you defend a player who is a legitimate threat as soon as he crosses halfcourt? He shot one from the “P” in the Pistons logo at The Palace. This was even farther.

8. The Pistons’ win over at Milwaukee on Saturday may fly under the radar as one of their big wins of the season, but it was one that could carry some importance as they come down the stretch. In their Jekyll-and-Hyde season, it’s a game they could have been easily expected to drop. But as they’re righting the ship, it turned out to be a tough road win that pulls them back into contention for the postseason.

9. Andre Drummond is starting to piece things together at the free-throw line. In the last four games, he’s shooting 44 percent (16-of-36) — and while that’s still not acceptable, it’s a jump of nine points from his season average. Drummond went 8-of-14 against the Cavaliers and subtracting the 1-of-6 against the Bucks, he’d be at 50 percent (15-of-30). It’s not going to happen overnight, but there are some signs, like making both in some trips to the line.

10. If the Pistons make the playoffs, they’re not a guarantee to be an easy out. With their up-and-down performances, they’ve proven they can beat anyone, but also lose to anyone. The Raptors handled them easily in the first two meetings and didn’t play All-Star Kyle Lowry on Sunday. The Cavs, though, have lost two of three to the Pistons. If Detroit is able to get the fifth or sixth seed, would the Celtics or Heat, for example, be a daunting first-round foe? Probably not.