Pistons gasp for air during long road trip

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Denver — Way back on Nov. 29, the Pistons were 14-6 and were one of the major stories of the first quarter of the NBA season.

That seems like so long ago.

After that hot start, the Pistons lost seven straight, finishing with a loss to the Denver Nuggets. Since that 20-game stint, they’re 16-31 gasping for air in their unlikely uphill playoff climb. Their western trip had them in high elevation in Salt Lake City for Tuesday’s loss to the Jazz and in Denver for Thursday’s matchup.

With the regular season winding down to its final four weeks, there could be some tendency to look back and lament the opportunity the Pistons had with their hot start and how things have cratered since.

Not so for coach Stan Van Gundy. It’s more about looking ahead and having as strong a finish as possible, giving themselves a chance to make the playoffs if they can get on another streak and get some help from the Miami Heat or Milwaukee Bucks.

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“I’m trying not to (look back); that’s something for the end of the season. It’s something you have to work at, to be honest,” Van Gundy said after Thursday’s shootaround. “You have to keep your mind focused on the present. If you do look back, it can be depressing to know where you were and what’s happened.

“The bottom line is that’s all gone, there’s nothing we can do about it and I gain no value in analyzing it. We have to try to be ready to play the Denver Nuggets and that’s it. That’s where I’m trying to stay and these guys are trying to stay.”

Injuries have derailed the Pistons season, going without starting point guard Reggie Jackson for almost three months. The trade for Blake Griffin had an early positive impact, but things have come crashing down, with 11 losses in the past 14 games.

“One of the things we’re battling right now as much as anything is frustration and the frustration comes from looking back at the last 12 or 13 games,” Van Gundy said. “That produces the frustration in a game. We’ve talked about it: one of the things earlier in the year is we had a lot of comebacks from pretty big deficits.

“You’re winning so when things go bad in a game, you don’t get down about it because you’ve been winning and you feel good. When you’re not playing well and you’re struggling and things start to go bad in a game, it’s easy to hang your head and become discouraged and frustrated. That’s happened.”

In many cases, when teams get into slumps and need some positive visualization, the coaches show players clips of what they’re doing well to help put them back on the right track. That works in some cases, but the Pistons’ is a little more complicated. At least for now, it’s more of a focus on the present than the past.

“To look back and try to analyze the season for me even is counter-productive. At some point, it can be productive in the offseason, but not now,” Van Gundy said. “We’re a totally different team (than before the trade). It’s more lock in (mentally) to tonight and learn from the game ahead of time. Let’s get out of the frustration and just lock in to tonight.”

Bullock, Buycks to return

The Pistons got some good news, with Bullock (sore knee and back spasms) and Dwight Buycks (sprained ankle) both getting cleared to play on Thursday. They had missed the last two games, forcing more juggling of the rotation, but their return means that Bullock goes back into the starting role and Buycks will be the backup point guard.

Jackson’s anticipated return has been delayed, but there’s still optimism that he could play during the road trip, which finishes March 22 at Houston.

Van Gundy said Jackson played some halfcourt 3-on-3 — another step in his progression to returning — on Wednesday and did some basic non-contact offensive work Thursday.