The Monday Drive: Pistons finally relevant again late in season

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
Marcus Morris

It’s a new day.

For the first time since 2009, Pistons fans haven’t already mentally checked out as the regular season draws to a close. The Pistons don’t have to take a back seat to the Red Wings’ playoff push or be diverted by the Tigers’ Opening Day plans.

The Pistons are getting closer to making the playoffs for the first time since 2009 and at this time of year, they’re still part of Detroit sports conversations. With five games left, if the Pistons make the playoffs, they’d likely be the No. 7 or No. 8 seed, matching them against the Raptors or the Cavaliers in the first round.

It’s a stark change for coach Stan Van Gundy, but even more for the young team that’s starting to jell, as they’re gaining valuable experience that will help them not only this year, but in years to come.

They already have nine more wins than last season and have guaranteed at least a .500 record for the first time since 2007-08, the final year in the streak of six straight trips to the Eastern Conference finals.

“Our guys are learning as they go. These are games you need to be in for your team to grow and learn,” Van Gundy said. “Last year at this time, we were just winding it up. It was coming to an end and it’s great to be playing in games that matter all the way through the season, for the growth of your team.”

The Monday Drive hits the road for a critical streak, with games at Miami Tuesday and Orlando Wednesday, and back home against the Wizards on Friday. Here are this week’s observations:

1. The Pistons might be better than we thought. They’re still learning their way, but they’re starting to get it. The wins over Oklahoma City and Chicago — even though they were shorthanded and didn’t have some key players — were critical for their playoff push. The next test will be finishing out the run to the postseason with a couple more key wins, plus a win or two in the playoffs. That would be a successful season, given the expectations.

2. The defense is back, just in time. They’ve kept the last three opponents under 100 points, something they’d done only three times in the previous 14 games. Again, some of the foes were shorthanded, but wins are wins. The Bulls' Jimmy Butler had a spectacular game with his first career triple-double (28 points, 17 rebounds, 12 assists). But the Pistons kept the rest of the Bulls in check and got the win.

Morris, Harris surge as Pistons strengthen playoff position

3. Reggie Jackson is struggling. He’s been mired in a shooting slump in the past 10 games, averaging just 14.9 points and shooting 34 percent from the field, including an abysmal 25 percent on triples. His decision-making has been off and the offense has seemed to suffer, but he made up for it against the Bulls on Saturday and hitting some key free throws in the final minutes. He’ll need to be better in the final five games to get in the playoffs.

4. Morris has been a saving grace. It’s not breaking news that Morris has been in a hot-shooting streak. He’s been scorching on 3-pointers, but more than that, he’s been dominant on isolation plays on the wings. In the last 11 games, he’s averaging 17.8 points, hitting 58 percent on field goals and 62 percent on 3-pointers. He’s becoming a go-to scorer on critical possessions.

5. The bench has to be better. In the last five games, Anthony Tolliver has just five 3-pointers and Stanley Johnson is averaging 3.2 points, and in the last three games Aron Baynes has totaled six points. That’s putting more pressure on the starting unit, which has responded. But if the Pistons make the playoffs, that will be a weakness that Cleveland or Toronto could exploit, with their depth.

6. The Pistons matter to Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Why did that war of words go on for four days if the Pistons didn’t matter to the Thunder? They let Reggie Jackson’s over-the-top celebration get under their skin. If they just didn’t respond to it, it wouldn’t have even been a postgame issue; instead, it stretched for four days. It won’t be a rivalry, but the Pistons will get up for both games against them next season.

7. The East playoff race will go down to the wire. The four-team logjam for seeds 3 through 6 changes daily between Atlanta, Boston, Miami and Charlotte. In the playoffs, they’ll play each other, so jockeying for home-court advantage will be key. The Heat have the hardest road, with two games against surging Orlando, two against the Pistons and against Chicago and Boston.

8. Golden State’s quest for the record won’t be easy. The Warriors (69-8) are on a collision course with the Bulls’ single-season wins record (73) but with two games against the Spurs, there’s a challenge. They’ve gotten every team’s best shot this year but the Spurs may decide that they have nothing else to play for, and won’t give them the satisfaction of playing at full strength. The Warriors likely will go full tilt and not rest starters.

9. Giannis Antetokounmpo is going to be a point guard. At 6-foot-11, he generally plays small forward and shooting guard, but the Bucks revealed that the Greek Freak will be their starting point guard next season. His ball-handling already is good, but he’ll be a cross-match nightmare for teams. The Bucks underachieved a bit this season, but with some shuffling, Jason Kidd is hoping to get them on track to contend next year.

10. The Clippers got Blake Griffin back. After missing more than three months because of injuries and suspensions, Griffin played his first game since Christmas in the Clippers’ win over the Wizards on Sunday. While Griffin was out, Los Angeles maintained and is settled into the No. 4 seed, with a possible tantalizing second-round matchup against the Warriors in the playoffs. He’ll have about two weeks to get back in peak form before the postseason.

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard