Auburn Hills — The final eight games of the regular season will be as daunting a path to the playoffs as any stretch the Pistons have had this season.
Seven of the games are against teams that are also in playoff contention, including the Oklahoma City Thunder, whom the Pistons face on Tuesday night at The Palace. The Thunder won the first meeting, 103-87, in Oklahoma City and the Thunder enter this matchup with a seven-game win streak, including the win over the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday.
The biggest task will be stopping the two-pronged offensive juggernaut of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Durant had 34 points and 13 rebounds and Westbrook 14 points and 11 turnovers.
Westbrook has posted four triple-doubles during their seven-game win streak, more of a reflection of the type of potent player he can be than the first meeting, in November.
“He’s a helluva player and a great rebounder. Just trying to keep him away from the basket on drives, post-ups, transition and offensive rebounds, is a real challenge,” coach Stan Van Gundy said. “Russell had a bad night. I’ve said it before: ‘You don’t shut those guys down; you just don’t.
“You try to stay in front of them the best you can and not let them get to the basket, get as much help as you can and keep them off the board and hope they miss the shot.”
While the Pistons (39-35) had the most back-to-back games in the league this season, they’ll have an odd finish to the season, with eight games in 16 days, including three back-to-backs. Following the Thunder game, they’ll close the nine-game home stand against the Dallas Mavericks and then play at Chicago on Saturday, at Miami on Tuesday and at Orlando on Wednesday.
Van Gundy noted the positives and negatives of the remaining schedule, with plenty of time for practice and rest, but it’ll also disrupt the rhythm the Pistons had been in, with a five-game win streak before Saturday’s loss to Atlanta.
“It’s easier to get into a rhythm when you’re playing all the time than when you’re taking days off between games,” Van Gundy said. “The NBA rhythm for players is to play every other day, with some back-to-backs. Two or three days off, you don’t get it that much.
Feeling the heat
Van Gundy pointed to the importance of the final stretch of games in giving the Pistons some experience in games that matter at the end of the season.
But that applies to the players more than the coaches. Their game-to-game preparation doesn’t change much, but the intensity with which the opponents play is more palpable for them than the coaches.
“(Coaches) prepare for every game pretty much the same way. That’s different than being out on the floor and feeling the other guy and being ready when the other guy steps his intensity up and gets into you a little bit more,” Van Gundy said. “You don’t have that as a coach and I don’t think we can change a whole lot in our preparation. We prepare about as thoroughly as we can for every single game.”
The Pistons re-signed guard Lorenzo Brown to a second 10-day contract. Brown was added to provide depth at point guard, as Spencer Dinwiddie was injured and they only had two healthy point guards on the roster.
Brown, 6-foot-5, 189 pounds, didn’t play during his first 10-day stint with the Pistons but did play in eight games with the Phoenix Suns in January.
This time, Van Gundy is hoping to get a better look at Brown and possibly get him into a game.
“We hadn’t gotten to see him at all and we knew we’d get a couple practices in.” Van Gundy said. “We hadn’t had time to work but now we will and it’s getting an extra guy for practice and getting a look at him.”
It’s unclear whether Brown might play, especially since Van Gundy said that Dinwiddie, who is recovering from a bone bruise in his ankle, returned to practice and participated in full-court, five-on-five drills.
Pistons vs. Thunder
Tip-off: 7:30 Tuesday, The Palace, Auburn Hills
Outlook: The Thunder have won seven straight and will be playing the second of a back-to-back. They’re likely locked into the No. 3 seed in the West, behind Russell Westbrook (27.9 points, 10.4 assists, 7.7 rebounds).
Schedules for the teams in a fight for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference:
7 INDIANA (39-34, NINE GAMES)
Home (five) — Chicago (tonight), Orlando (Thursday), Cleveland (April 6), Brooklyn (April 10), New York (April 12). Away (four) — Philadelphia (Saturday), New York (Sunday), Toronto (April 8), Milwaukee (April 13)
8 DETROIT (39-35, EIGHT GAMES)
Home (four) — Oklahoma City (tonight), Dallas (Friday), Washington (April 8), Miami (April 12). Away (four) — Chicago (Saturday), Miami (April 5), Orlando (April 6), Cleveland (April 13)
9 CHICAGO (36-36, 10 GAMES)
Home (four) — Atlanta (Monday), Detroit (Saturday), Cleveland (April 9), Philadelphia (April 13). Away (six) — Indiana (tonight), Houston (Thursday), Milwaukee (Sunday), Memphis (April 5), Miami (April 7), New Orleans (April 11)
10 WASHINGTON (35-36, NINE GAMES)
Home (three) — Brooklyn (April 6), Charlotte (April 10), Atlanta (April 13). Away (six) — Golden State (tonight), Sacramento (Wednesday), Phoenix (Friday), L.A. Clippers (Sunday), Detroit (April 8), Brooklyn (April 11)