The Monday Drive: Long home stand will determine Pistons’ fate

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
Stanley Johnson

Washington, D.C. — After completing their four-game road trip, the Pistons will have a nine-game home stand beginning Wednesday against the Atlanta Hawks.

With less than 20 games left, all of them are going to matter — and some more than others, with some key games coming against teams ahead of them in the playoff race. The Pistons play the Hawks twice on the home stand, along with matchups against the Charlotte Hornets and two against the Miami Heat in the coming weeks.

The playoff picture will be painted heavily by how the Pistons perform in the next couple weeks at home, but more importantly, their seeding could be enhanced if they win some of the games against the teams directly in front of them.

The Monday Drive pulls back into the home garage for a needed tune-up and routine maintenance for the stretch run to the postseason. Here are this week’s thoughts and observations on the Pistons’ path forward:

1. The road trip was a success. The Pistons guaranteed at least a .500 finish in the four games, with wins over the Mavericks and the Sixers. The loss to the Hornets was concerning, though, because it was the second time they’ve laid an egg at Charlotte. It’s just not a good matchup for the Pistons, but they didn’t seem to have the defensive mentality to play them close at all — a flaw they’ve shown many times this season.

2. Even without Stanley Johnson and Anthony Tolliver for much of the past 10 games, the Pistons have posted a 7-3 record and have stayed in the postseason conversation. The starters have amped up their contributions, but the bench has been able to tread water with Reggie Bullock and Steve Blake chipping in, as well. Bullock has been the new sixth man and lived up to the high expectations he created in the preseason during this stretch.

3. Blake is an asset at backup point guard. Say what you want, but he’s filled in nicely since Brandon Jennings was traded. He’s mentally tough and has been able to bounce back from some stretches to make key baskets and deliver in crunch time. His play in the third quarter of the win over the Sixers was critical for the comeback effort. He also stood up to Isaiah Canaan during a little dust-up — it’s a small detail, but shows his mettle.

Pistons' porous defense worries Van Gundy

4. Johnson isn’t fully back from his shoulder injury. It’s a small sample size, but he hasn’t been the same in his first two games back. He’s totaled only 23 minutes and attempted only three field goals, with one make — a corner 3-pointer against the Hornets. It’s going to take a few more games to get back to game speed and rhythm, but they’ll need his defense, at least, while he works his way back on the offensive end.

5. Tobias Harris continues to sizzle on the offensive end. He’s scored at least 14 points in each of his 12 games since the trade to the Pistons. He’s posting 17.7 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.4 assists, and coach Stan Van Gundy said he’s been impressed with the way Harris has fit in so quickly. While Harris and Morris have alternated between playing both forward positions, Harris looks more comfortable at power forward.

6. The Chicago Bulls are in trouble. Although the news is good on Jimmy Butler and he won’t miss the rest of the season, their injuries are starting to stack up. Between losing Joakim Noah for the rest of the season, and Butler’s and Derrick Rose’s recurring issues, they’ll have a rough road in trying to keep up with the Pistons for the No. 8 spot. They’ve lost six of the last eight and could be on the outside looking in.

7. The Hornets are surging at the right time. They’ve won seven straight and are almost a lock for the playoffs. They have a shot at catching the Celtics for the No. 3 seed and have one of the best home records in the East, at 25-9. They’re 12-19 on the road, the worst mark of any of the teams currently in the East playoff race. But for a franchise that’s thirsted for the postseason, that won’t matter much.

8. Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo is the real deal. At 6-foot-11, he can handle the ball and he’s a matchup nightmare as a small forward. The “Greek Freak” is honing his offensive game, with four triple-doubles in the past 11 games. As he’s becoming a better passer, he’s becoming more potent; in those last 11 games, he’s had six with at least 10 assists. The Bucks might just need another year to jell and get things together.

9. The Cavaliers are starting to show some flash. With a good stretch, they could start to distance themselves from the rest of the East. After dropping three of four, they’ve won six of seven but only have a 2.5-game lead over the Raptors. Although the top seed and home-court advantage in the East aren’t a must for them, they’d do well to hold off the Raptors.

10. That’s why they play the games. The Lakers’ win over the Warriors was surprising, of course, but with so much attention paid to the Warriors’ run toward the 72-win mark, they’ll have some hiccups along the way. The other teams are earning their paychecks too and any game is a potential for an upset. Golden State is playing at such a high level, there’s bound to be some slippage — that’s part of the intrigue.