Auburn Hills — If it wasn’t against his own team, Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy might have used Saturday night’s game film of the Atlanta Hawks winning the second half of a back-to-back to show the Pistons what they need to do.
The Hawks contested shots on the perimeter. They communicated on defense. They moved the ball on offense to find open shots. They had 34 assists on 43 made field goals.
Most of all, they left an impression on Van Gundy and the Pistons.
“We’re learning and tonight hopefully was a big lesson: that’s the most intense and energetic anybody has played against us all year,” Van Gundy said. “Quite honestly, we weren’t ready to rise to that level. It wasn’t that our guys didn’t try — we’re just not at that level and we need to rise to that level.
“It’s the kind of stuff that we all want our teams to do and our guys got a feel for that. If we’re all honest with ourselves, they played at a level that we couldn’t match. It was more about them than us.”
The Hawks (44-30) are a veteran team that is vying for the No. 3 seed and home-court advantage in the playoffs — and a potential sleeper team in the East. The Pistons are looking to end their six-year postseason drought.
The Pistons came in with the longest winning streak in the Eastern Conference, but the Hawks were one of the hottest teams, having won 11 of 13. Still, in the final stretch of the season toward the playoffs, the Pistons had a lot of takeaways regarding how they could improve their game and get ready for their final eight games, which feature seven matchups against teams still vying for the postseason.
“I didn’t come away from that game like I did a lot of times that we weren’t ready to play,” Van Gundy said. “We tried to hang in there and got it to eight or nine and couldn’t get over the hump because they were playing so well. I’m not angry at our guys; we gave an effort.
“They played at a level tonight that we haven’t been able to get to yet — or had to get to yet. Hopefully it’s a learning experience for us.”
Each time the Pistons got within striking distance — within seven with 26.8 seconds left in the third quarter — they Hawks hit a big shot to shut down the rally. Mike Scott hit a 3-pointer to start the fourth quarter to push the lead back to 10. Their 6-0 spurt helped put the game away with eight minutes left.
“That’s a playoff team; that’s a team that’s trying to fight for something,” forward Marcus Morris said. “After a back-to-back, to have that much energy, really opened my eyes because they played like they hadn’t played in a couple days, and it showed.”
Center Andre Drummond and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the longest-tenured Pistons, are looking to get their first taste of the postseason and Saturday’s loss was an important lesson in learning to play in big games.
“Being in this race right now and playing games like tonight are critical to the development of our team,” Van Gundy said. “Yeah, we want to get into the playoffs; it’s a huge goal. Every guy in that locker room wants in; I want in badly; (owner) Tom (Gores) wants in — we all want in.
“But we have to stay focused. The way to get in is to play better.”
From the outside
Morris went 2-of-6 on 3-pointers, continuing his hot streak from beyond the arc. He’s hit 23 3-pointers in his last nine games and is hitting 61 percent (23-of-38), including 2-of-6 in Saturday’s loss. During the stretch, he’s also averaging 16 points.
Van Gundy said he’d like to stick to his nine-man rotation, even though Reggie Bullock is healthy. Bullock and Darrun Hilliard have had their playing time reduced since Stanley Johnson has returned from injury and with the season winding down, the bench will likely shrink before it stretches.
“It’s just tough to play 10. When we gave Darrun minutes, it was in place of Stanley,” he said. “It’s tough to get 10 and give anybody enough minutes to get into any type of rhythm.”
The time for the Pistons’ game at the Miami Heat on April 5 was moved to 8 p.m., as the game will be nationally televised on TNT.