With the mad dash to the playoffs nearing the final stretch, the Pistons remain in the hunt to snap their six-year postseason drought.
Entering play Sunday, the Pistons (36-34) were sitting in ninth place in the Eastern Conference standings behind the eighth-place Chicago Bulls (35-33), who have played two fewer games.
And while the Pistons currently hold the tiebreaker over the Bulls with a 2-1 edge in the season series, it could matter little if their lackluster defense doesn’t improve over the final 12 games.
After squandering a double-digit lead in the third quarter and faltering late against the Atlanta Hawks Wednesday to open up a nine-game home stand, the Pistons responded with back-to-back wins against the lowly Sacramento Kings and dismal Brooklyn Nets.
But those two victories, which the Pistons desperately needed to keep pace with the Bulls, didn’t come easy.
The Kings and Nets, who dwell near the bottom of their respective conferences, gave the Pistons fits.
Against the Kings on Friday, the Pistons posted season highs in scoring in the first quarter (39) and halftime (64), but still managed to let an 18-point lead slip away in the second half.
Detroit needed a pair of runs in the final minutes of the fourth quarter — spearheaded by Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Aron Baynes — to finally pull away from the league’s worst defensive team.
Then Saturday against the Brook Lopez-less Nets, the Pistons struggled through the first three quarters until the bench sparked a key run to start the final quarter, led by Baynes, Stanley Johnson and Anthony Tolliver.
While the Pistons have scored at least 114 points in four of the last six games, their defense has given up an average of 113.7 points over that six-game span, much to the dismay of coach Stan Van Gundy.
“I don’t think our starters played very hard defensively,” Van Gundy said after Saturday’s game.
“We’ll be happy with it and move on, but we hope at some point that we can get some guys to start playing some defense.”
That defensive turnaround could begin tonight with a favorable matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks, who rank 23rd in the league in scoring (99.4 points) and have been held under 100 points in the teams’ past two meetings.
If not, the Pistons could find themselves watching the playoffs from home for the seventh consecutive year.
Bucks at Pistons
Tip-off: 7:30 Monday, The Palace, Auburn Hills
Outlook: The Pistons hold a 2-1 edge in the season series and have won the past two meetings between the teams. ...The Bucks have five players averaging double figures in scoring and are led by Khris Middleton (18.3 points) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (16.7).