Pistons must excel in stretch to make playoffs

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills – Early in the season, coach Stan Van Gundy wasn’t as concerned about the standings because there were so many games to play.

Now that the Pistons season — and playoff hopes — is coming down to the wire, he admitted he takes a peek every night.

For now, the Pistons (38-34) are in the No. 8 playoff position, 1.5 games ahead of the Bulls and a half-game behind the Pacers for the seventh seed.

With 10 games remaining, the Pistons still have a chance to end the franchise’s string of six years missing the postseason. Six of those games are at The Palace, including the next four beginning with the Hornets tonight.

But with the exception of the Magic, nine of the games are against teams vying for a playoff spot. Seven of their opponents have winning records, and the combined winning percentage of all 10 teams is .563, better than the current marks for the Pacers and Pistons.

“There aren’t going to be too many games out there the rest of the way where we’ll be favored,” Van Gundy said. “I do know that this is the second time we’ve had four games in a row where you would say we should win and we’ve done it both times. We certainly didn’t make it easy in the Sacramento and Brooklyn games but we got through it.

“That’s a significant sign of growth, taking care of the games you should take care of, because we haven’t always done that.”

Van Gundy pointed to the 38 victories the Pistons have, which is the highest since 2008-09 and would have been enough in each of the past five years to secure a playoff spot.

This year, however, it’s likely going to take 43 or 44 victories to ensure a postseason berth, what Van Gundy termed “a mortal battle” between the Pistons, Pacers, Bulls and Wizards.

“You’re going to have to finish this up really strong against very good competition to get in,” Van Gundy said. “The good part is, if you do, you’ll get in. If we get in, we’ll get in playing really good basketball, because there’s no other way to do this.”

In the final four games of their nine-game home stand, the Pistons face the Hornets, Hawks, Thunder and Mavericks — teams the Pistons are a combined 2-5 against.

The Hornets (41-30) have won the first two meetings by 20 and 15 points, respectively, while the Hawks have taken the last two after dropping the opener.

While defense remains an issue with the Pistons starters, the last four games have shown they can either get the stops they need or generate enough offense to outscore opponents.

The teams challenging the Pistons face some ups and downs of their own.

■The Pacers (12 games) look to have the easiest road to the playoffs with seven games at home and three against teams with winning records. They also play the Nets and hapless 76ers.

■The Bulls (12 games) have been beset by injuries to Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler and Pau Gasol, and play eight on the road.

■The Wizards (11 games) seem to have one of the more interesting schedules, with a five-game West Coast trip that includes games against the Warriors, Kings and Clippers.

Hornets at Pistons

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

TV/radio: FSD/WMGC

Outlook: Charlotte is in a four-team mashup vying for seeds 3-6. It sits 3.5 games ahead of No. 8 Detroit. ... The Hornets are 2-0 against the Pistons.

Stretch run

Schedule for the teams in a fight for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference:

7 INDIANA (37-33, 12 GAMES)

Home (seven) — New Orleans (Thursday), Houston (Sunday), Chicago (Tuesday), Orlando (March 31), Cleveland (April 6), Brooklyn (April 10), New York (April 12. Away (five) — Brooklyn (Saturday), Philadelphia (April 2), New York (April 3), Toronto (April 8), Milwaukee (April 13)

8 DETROIT (38-34, 10 GAMES)

Home (six) — Charlotte (tonight), Atlanta (Saturday), Oklahoma City (Tuesday), Dallas (April 1), Washington (April 8), Miami (April 12). Away (four) — Chicago (April 2), Miami (April 5), Orlando (April 6), Cleveland (April 13)

9 CHICAGO (36-34, 12 GAMES)

Home (four) — Atlanta (Monday), Detroit (April 2), Cleveland (April 9), Philadelphia (April 13). Away (eight) — New York (Thursday), Orlando (Saturday), Indiana (Tuesday), Houston (March 31), Milwaukee (April 3), Memphis (April 5), Miami (April 7), New Orleans (April 11)

10 WASHINGTON (35-36, 11 GAMES)

Home (four) — Minnesota (tonight), Brooklyn (April 6), Charlotte (April 10), Atlanta (April 13). Away (seven) — L.A. Lakers (Sunday), Golden State (Tuesday), Sacramento (Wednesday), Phoenix (April 1), L.A. Clippers (April 3), Detroit (April 8), Brooklyn (April 11)