LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

Auburn Hills — Practice took on a different feel for the Pistons Sunday afternoon as Stan Van Gundy decided to loosen up the reins, allowing his team to go five-on-five and up and down the floor.

The thought process was the Pistons, who are mired in a slump in which they’ve lost six of their last seven games and find themselves on the outside looking in when it comes to the Eastern Conference playoff picture, need to play more freely and stop letting every little thing that goes wrong affect their effort.

“We’re at that point in the year where we’ve hit a bit of a wall,” Van Gundy said. “The energy has been sapped and everybody’s really frustrated.”

“I think every night we go into the game ready to make a good effort.

“We open games wanting to play a certain way, and when it doesn’t go our way, frustration sets in. We’re just struggling with the mental part of it right now.”

The Pistons won two games in late February against Charlotte and Portland after falling into a big hole in the first half. But over their last two games, early troubles have snowballed as they appeared to check out in the second half.

Van Gundy says it’s up to his guys how they want to respond if a game doesn’t necessarily get off on the right foot.

“I don’t have an answer to help them get through it,” Van Gundy said. “I’ve never believed that coaches can give guys confidence. I do believe you can take away guys' confidence, and I think at times I’ve been guilty of that.”

“I’ve got to help keep them focused on doing things they can do every night: move the ball, get down in a stance on defense, and we shouldn’t let missing shots deter from that.”

When the Pistons take on the Knicks tonight in New York, it starts a crucial four games in a five-night stretch that will have a big impact on the season’s final playoff push.

With nine games remaining, the Pistons sit one game behind Miami for the final playoff spot in the East. And when you look a bit further ahead in the standings, it looks as if there’s a lot more to play for than being Cleveland’s sacrificial lamb in the first round.

In the 10 spot, the Pistons are just 3 games behind Atlanta for the five seed as part of the conference’s jumbled mess of teams fighting for position.

Ish Smith, who has started at point guard in place of Reggie Jackson in the last two blowout losses, is still optimistic about how the Pistons can finish this season.

“You scratch your head when you look at the standings,” Smith said. “We’re still playing hard but the ball’s not going through the basket. The confidence might be a little low, but despite all of that, we’re still right there.”

“What we’ve got to do is bring it together, and through all of this, I think we’ll have a good story to tell.”

But Van Gundy knows that all this talk of playoffs will be rendered moot if his team can’t find a way to dig itself out of its current funk.

“We’re still a team that is young and developing,” he said. “We’ve got to learn to get through these tough times, how to handle these situations and how to pull (ourselves) out. It’s all important for a growing team.”

“I think there is (optimism) today. Everything you want to accomplish is still there. To me, right now, winning and losing is almost secondary.

“I just want us to get back to playing the way we want to play.”

Geoff Robinson is a freelance writer

Pistons at Knicks

Tipoff: 7:30 Monday, Madison Square Garden, New York

TV/radio: FSD/105.1

Outlook: The Pistons (34-39) have lost six of their last seven and sit 11/2 games behind Miami for the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot. ... The Pistons are 2-1 against the Knicks this year, with their lone loss being a 105-102 setback in New York in November.

LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE