Auburn Hills — In the midst of a five-game losing streak in February, the Pistons’ playoff hopes were beginning to slip away.
After hovering above .500 for much of the first half of the season, injuries throughout the roster started to pile up and take their toll. The battered Pistons dropped three straight to the Pacers, Raptors and Nuggets to limp into the All-Star break at 27-27.
Even with the addition of forward Tobias Harris on Feb. 16, the Pistons continued to slide down the Eastern Conference standings as they opened the second half with consecutive losses to the Wizards and Pelicans.
The following day after Pelicans forward Anthony Davis torched the defense for a Palace-record 59 points, the Pistons headed into a Feb. 22 matchup against the Cavaliers for the second game of a back-to-back.
“It was the toughest time of the year right there,” coach Stan Van Gundy said. “We were two games under .500 and going in to play the No. 1 team on the road, so it’s not exactly looking like brighter days.”
But the Pistons pulled out of their nosedive with a 96-88 win and kick-started a stretch of six wins in eight games to put them back in playoff contention.
“There’s certain points of the season you can look at and say that was kind of a make it or break it situation and that game versus the Cavs definitely was,” Harris said. “For us, we went in the positive direction, we got a win, we got some momentum and we knew after beating them we could compete with anybody and we have to be at our best every single night.”
Van Gundy said it wasn’t necessarily a turning point, but rather a sigh of relief and much-needed confidence boost.
“Coming out of (Cleveland) with one of the best wins certainly of the year, I think that game sort of got us going again and propelled us to where we are now,” he said.
The victory marked Harris’ third game since being acquired from the Magic and first start as a Piston, providing a glimpse of what the modified starting unit was capable of.
“We had a lot of good moments throughout the season and that was a good game for us,” guard Reggie Jackson said. “We welcomed (Harris) to the lineup and it was a good mesh and happy we were able to get the win. Against that team, it gave us more confidence than anything when you’re playing the top-seeded team in the East and when you start a new lineup you can get a convincing the way that we did.”
Starting Sunday, the Pistons will get the chance to earn an even much more significant win against the Cavs when the teams' first-round playoff series begins.
“We’re at the point of the season where it’s either put up or shut up,” rookie Stanley Johnson said. “The fact that we beat them twice this season probably gives them more effort to play hard against us because they know what we can do. And we know we can rise to the occasion against the best teams in the league.”
After missing the last two games of the regular season with an abdominal strain, Jackson said was “all right, feeling better” following Friday’s practice. He added that he didn’t have any limitations, indicating he should be back in the starting lineup this weekend.
“We had a pretty good practice. We got after it today and went through a couple things,” he said. “Just feeling better. I’m feeling good and very optimistic for Sunday.”
Van Gundy said after being a late scratch for Tuesday’s home finale against the Heat, Jackson had an ultrasound that night, which revealed he didn’t have a hip flexor injury or anything more serious.
“He looked fine; full speed, 100 percent,” Van Gundy said. “Little rusty but as far as energy and physically, he looked fine.”
Regular season series game-by-game results
Nov. 17: (At) Detroit 104, Cleveland 99
Leading scorers: Pistons’ Andre Drummond (25 points), Cavaliers’ LeBron James (30 points)
Jan. 29: Cleveland 114, (at) Detroit 106
Leading scorers: Drummond (20), Kevin Love (29)
Feb. 22: Detroit 96, (at) Cleveland 88
Leading scorers: Reggie Jackson (23), Kyrie Irving (30)
Apr. 13: Detroit 112, (at) Cleveland 110 (OT)
Leading scorers: Jodie Meeks (20), Jordan McRae (36)