Auburn Hills — Eight games. Four at home and four on the road.
That’s all that’s separating the Pistons from a potential trip to the playoffs.
It might have been hard to imagine at the beginning of the season that the Pistons could be in this position, because of their inexperience and recent history.
With about two weeks remaining in the season, the Pistons (39-35) hold the No. 8 spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race and face a daunting road ahead, with seven of the eight opponents also contending for the postseason.
“We’re playing teams now that are at a different level,” coach Stan Van Gundy said after the Pistons’ 112-95 loss to the Hawks on Saturday night. “We’re trying to learn what it’s all about and we don’t quite understand it.
“(Our guys) have learning to do — I don’t say that in a bad way. That’s where we are and hopefully we learn from tonight and get better going into Tuesday and into these last eight games that are all going to be difficult, with teams having a lot to play for.”
The Pistons host Oklahoma City on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.
Van Gundy pointed to the importance of the last stretch of the season because it gives them their first taste of games that matter during a playoff push. Whether they make it or not, the experience will be critical for next season and beyond.
The Monday Drive tunes up for final frenzy of the last eight games of the season with this week’s 10 observations:
1. The Pistons did what they needed to last week. They got the two must-wins over the Bucks and Magic — beating the Hornets was just sprinkles on the ice cream cone. Finishing 2-2 last week would have been acceptable, but getting the third win gave them a margin of error, with a two-game cushion over the Bulls, and within striking range of the Pacers for the No. 7 spot.
2. Andre Drummond hasn’t reached his potential. Not even close. He’s back to his early-season form, with some ridiculous double-doubles, including 30 points and 14 rebounds against the Magic. In the past week, he had more surges of energy and help on defense — with seven blocks in the last three games — that boosted the Pistons, not to mention shooting 7-of-15 on free throws.
3. Aron Baynes has elevated his game. He has four double-digit scoring games in the last five. He had a season-best 21 points against the Nets and is averaging 14.7 points and 5.7 rebounds in his last three games, shooting 74 percent (14-of-19) from the field. Taking the breadth of the season, his combination of offense and defense make him as good a backup center as there is in the league.
4. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is peaking. His streak of 10 games scoring in double figures ended Saturday with only nine points against the Hawks. During the span, he averaged 18.9 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists. More than that, he’ll get consideration for the NBA All-Defensive Team. Whether he gets the nod for the first or second team — or just misses — it’s a worthy accomplishment that shows his development.
5. Marcus Morris continues to sizzle on 3-pointers. In his last nine games, he is shooting 61 percent on triples (25-of-38). He’s getting back to his career average of 36 percent from beyond the arc, just adding to the Pistons’ effectiveness, combining his inside game with some clutch shooting. He admitted Monday that his legs were tired Saturday (he went 2-of-6 on triples) against the Hawks, off the back-to-back against the Hornets.
6. The Bulls are sinking at the wrong time. They lost three straight — including a home-and-home back-to-back against the struggling Knicks. The Bulls are 10-16 since the start of February, with losing streaks of five, four, two and three. They don’t have an easy finish to their schedule and the matchup against the Pistons on Saturday looms large to their playoff fortunes.
7. The West is getting interesting. No, not at the top, where the Warriors essentially have clinched the top seed and are chasing the Bulls’ wins record. The margin between sixth place and ninth is just 2.5 games, with the Mavericks on the outside looking in. The Mavs are 2-8 in their last 10 and after Sunday’s loss to the Kings, guard Rajon Rondo (who was with Dallas last season) said he’s loves playing spoiler.
8. Hawks legend and dunker extraordinaire Dominique Wilkins said he enjoyed the slam-dunk contest this year. However, he said he would change the scoring to that players would be heavily penalized for missing dunk attempts. Some of the pageantry and excitement is lost when players get multiple tries at the same dunk, which takes away from the anticipation and crowd appreciation. He said he’d also change the scoring, with too many perfect 10s awarded.
9. Are we stuck on LeBron James? The Cavs have turned into something of a reality show, with more concern about whom James is following and not following on Twitter than how Cleveland is playing. There are some chemistry issues, as their Big Three of James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love haven’t played much together this year. They might have a bigger challenge in turning on the mojo in the East than many pundits think.
10. Remember Blake Griffin? The Clippers forward was cleared to return to practice but will serve a four-game suspension for his altercation with a team assistant equipment manager in January. He had previously suffered a partially-torn quad tendon in December and has missed a total of 41 games. The Clippers managed without him and likely will have the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference.