The Monday Drive: Caldwell-Pope is Pistons’ MVP
In the midst of their longest home stand in franchise history, the Pistons are winding down their season with their best chance to end their six-season playoff drought. It’s been a stretch that already has had its share of disappointment — opening with a critical loss to the Hawks — but getting back on track with wins over the Kings and Nets.
They’ve already posted their most wins since 2008-09 and are running neck-and-neck with the Bulls for the final playoff spot in the East. But now the Pacers, who have lost two straight, are just a half-game ahead for the No. 7 spot and within reach.
The Pistons will have to get on a win streak to try to catch the next batch of teams, with the Hawks, Heat, Celtics and Hornets separated by just 1.5 games for the third through sixth seeds.
The Monday Drive fuels up for the remainder of the home stand with these observations:
1. Wins are wins. Of the 36 wins in their first 70 games, the Pistons are 19-13 against teams at .500 or below and 17-21 against those with winning records. It shows the maddening up-and-down swings they’ve had this season, with one of the top marks against winning teams, but they’re tied for the third-most losses against losing teams. Those could come back to haunt them if they miss the playoffs by a game or two.
2. The reserves are saving the Pistons. In Saturday’s win over the Nets, Aron Baynes had a career-best 21 points in 19 minutes and Stanley Johnson a career-high six assists. Coach Stan Van Gundy lauded their performances and the defensive focus that helped pull the game out in the fourth quarter, and Anthony Tolliver (17 points) was clutch in boosting the effort.
3. Defense, for starters. Van Gundy has harped on the lagging defensive performance from the starting group, namely Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond. Point guard and center are the two most important positions on defense and when those two aren’t up to par, it’s a glaring weakness. Opposing guards are getting to the paint easily and if Drummond isn’t providing rim protection, it’s going to be rough sledding the rest of the way.
4. KCP is on the Pistons’ MVP. Sure, Drummond and Jackson are the best players, but Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is the most critical to their success. Remember when was out for four games before the All-Star break? Yeah, the Pistons lost three of those. He plays most with the reserves to add some defensive toughness, and although his shot isn’t always falling, Caldwell-Pope is the glue that holds things together.
5. Reggie Jackson is battling — everything. Whether it’s his viral sinus issues or Van Gundy’s exhortations to play better defense, Jackson had a tough week. The defensive issues have been discussed but the sickness has slowed him a little. He’s played through the problems and the production is still there, with double-digit assists in three of the last six games.
6. Van Gundy is right about the Pistons’ struggles with defense. They’re getting away with letting bad teams like the Kings and Nets stick around — and it cost them in the loss to the Hawks. The second half of the home stand has the Hornets, Hawks, Thunder and Mavericks. They won’t be able to have defensive breakdowns and hope to come out with more than a win or two. They’ll need to finish the home stand at 6-3 or better.
7. The bench is shortened. Van Gundy was looking to solidify his rotation and appears to have done it without having to make any tough decisions. Spencer Dinwiddie (ankle) and Jodie Meeks (toe) have battled injuries and don’t look close to a return. Even if they do, they’ll have to work to get back into the playing rotation. Reggie Bullock has emerged as a defensive option and good outside shooter, after struggling early in the year.
8. The West playoffs aren’t set. Things looked to be almost settled, but spots six through eight got closer. The Trail Blazers, Rockets and Mavericks all are within a game and the Jazz are ninth, a game behind. While the top of the West still has some bumping to go, the last three seeds will be interesting to watch over the final stretch of games. One or more of those teams could finish below .500 and make it.
9. Don’t crown the Warriors yet. The Spurs provided some intrigue with their win over Golden State on Saturday. The Spurs improved to 35-0 at home and dealt a seed of doubt to the defending champions, who had a seven-game win streak and still are chasing the Bulls’ single-season wins record. They held Steph Curry to 14 points, dogging him on defense and holding them to a season-low 79 points.
10. Don’t crown the Cavaliers either. Cleveland’s lead over the Toronto Raptors for the top seed in the East is down to one game. The Raptors have the tougher remaining schedule, including games at Boston, Atlanta and San Antonio, and against Oklahoma City. The Cavs have been up and down but they’ll likely hang on to the No. 1 spot, but if they’re looking to rest some starters, they’ll have to get on a streak.