When the season resumes for the Pistons on Friday, they’ll be in an unusual spot — in playoff position in the Eastern Conference with 26 games remaining. Eighth place is an unenviable spot, with the East-leading Milwaukee Bucks looming as a possible postseason pairing in the first round.
It’s compounded by the fact that the Bucks swept the four-game season series from the Pistons, including a pair of 23-point wins. By all accounts, Milwaukee would present a daunting challenge.
The target for the Pistons (26-30), though, is not just eking into the playoffs. They’re tied with the Miami Heat for eighth place, a half-game ahead of the Orlando Magic and three games ahead of the Washington Wizards.
The Pistons are a half-game behind the Charlotte Hornets and 2½ games behind the Brooklyn Nets, both of whom have the head-to-head tiebreaker. The Sixers and Celtics are tied for fourth place, 10 games ahead — and it’s highly unlikely the Pistons can catch either.
So, it’s likely six teams competing for three playoff spots. Here’s a breakdown of each team’s remaining games and toughest stretches (order is based on current record):
► Brooklyn Nets (30-29): The Nets are one of the league’s biggest surprises, with a winning record before the All-Star break. They’ll have a tough road to the finish in their final 23, with the third-toughest remaining schedule, including five against the top four teams in the East. If they get to the playoffs, they will have earned it by their good first half and an unexpected run in the down the stretch.
Critical stretch: Their six-game western trip, includes four playoff teams: Thunder, Jazz, Clippers and Trail Blazers, plus the Kings and Lakers, who are on the fringe. In their final seven games, they have the gauntlet of six against teams in the top five in the East, including two against the Bucks.
► Charlotte Hornets (27-30): They had a good first half, but they have the second-hardest schedule in their final 25 games, with their remaining opponents boasting a .541 win percentage. The good news is that seven of their first eight games out of the break are at home. The bad news is that it’s not an easy stretch, with the Warriors, Rockets and Trail Blazers. They can help their cause with two wins against the Nets and Wizards and one versus the Heat.
Critical stretch: They still have a tricky four-game western trip, facing the Lakers, Warriors, Jazz and Pelicans. Their final three games are at the Pistons, Cavaliers and home versus the Magic. If they’re still in contention, that’s not a bad finish.
► Detroit Pistons (26-30): Their remaining strength of schedule ranks 24th, with a combined win percentage of .482. In their final 26 games, the Pistons still face the Raptors twice but balance it with getting the Cavs and Bulls twice each. They’re 3-0 against their three toughest remaining opponents (Raptors, Warriors and Nuggets) but they’re also inconsistent enough to lose to any given opponent on any given night.
Critical stretch: A four-game western trip at Phoenix, Portland, Golden State and Denver will be a big test, along with ensuing home-and-home against the Pacers. Finishing at home against the Grizzlies and at the Knicks could be an advantage.
► Miami Heat (26-30): After getting through a five-game western trip with a 2-3 mark, the Heat stayed in contention. They have the seventh-hardest remaining schedule, with two against the Bucks, two against the Raptors, plus the Warriors and Thunder. Their first two games are at the Sixers and hosting the Pistons. Five of their last six opponents have winning records.
Critical stretch: A four-game trip at the Thunder, Spurs, Bucks and Wizards will be tough but the five games before that, with key matchups against the Raptors, Pistons, Bucks and Hornets — all at home — will be just as important. They could gain some needed momentum heading into their two weeks.
► Orlando Magic (27-32): The Magic have the easiest remaining schedule (28th overall) of the six contending teams, with their opponents touting a .460 win percentage. Their hardest remaining games are two each against the Raptors and Pacers and one against the Warriors and Celtics in the final 23 games. They face the Knicks and Cavs twice each, plus one against the Cavs and Hawks.
Critical stretch: At the end of March, there’s a four-game road trip, at the Heat, Pistons, Pacers and Raptors, which could be pivotal. Before that, there’s a five-game home stand, with only one winning team, the Sixers, where they can get on a roll
► Washington Wizards (24-34): The Wizards would seem to be out of the playoff race, but stranger things have happened. In their final 24 games, they have a favorable remaining schedule, ranked the sixth-easiest.
Critical stretch: Coming out of the break, they face the Hornets, Pacers, Nets and Celtics but then play eight straight against teams with losing records — a chance to leapfrog the other contenders heading into the last three weeks of the season. They have a western trip also, but it’s against the Lakers, Suns, Jazz and Nuggets — not the toughest quartet.