A funny thing happened on the way to the draft lottery.
Somehow, someway, on some day, the Pistons turned things around. It was somewhere around Feb. 2, after they blew a 25-point lead at home against the Clippers. Perhaps they started gaining momentum the game before, when they barely topped a shorthanded Mavericks squad, which was missing most of its starters after a blockbuster trade before the deadline.
Whatever the case, the Pistons have morphed from one of the league’s disappointing teams into one of the teams to watch in the final five weeks before the end the regular season.
They’ve gone from a season-worst seven games under .500 on Jan. 29 to vying for the sixth seed with the Brooklyn Nets. After that win over the Mavericks, they’re 9-3 and playing their best stretch of offense and defense of the season.
The Pistons are trending toward their second playoff spot in the past decade and are doing it with some good basketball. Sure, it’s against some of the dregs of the league — with only two wins in that stretch coming against winning teams (Nuggets and Pacers) — but the schedule is the schedule.
In the last 20 games, the Pistons are in the middle of the pack in terms of strength of schedule, with two games against the Pacers and one each against the Warriors, Nuggets and Raptors. There also are plenty of seemingly easy ones left, including two against the Bulls, at Phoenix, versus the Cavaliers and the regular-season finale at the Knicks.
A few weeks ago, many in the fan base wanted the Pistons to tank the remainder of the season and try for the best draft pick they could muster in the lottery. Now, the talk has turned to what the best first-round matchup might be, between Raptors or Pacers.
The Monday Drive takes a look at some other observations during the Pistons’ recent rise in the standings:
► Luke Kennard has been a critical part of the stretch, finding his niche in the second group. He had been catching Casey’s ire for his hesitation in taking shots, but Kennard is in his wheelhouse of late, including a career-best six 6-pointers in Saturday’s win at Cleveland. He followed with five more in Sunday’s game against the Raptors. When Kennard has it going, it’s a good indication that the bench is playing well — when he’s facilitating and getting others involved.
► Wayne Ellington is settling nicely into the starting lineup, finding open shots in the open spots of the defense and hitting some off the dribble as well. He’s providing much of the same 3-point shooting (36 percent) that Reggie Bullock brought but after the trade, it’s looking more like an equal swap.
► Blake Griffin is playing not quite at the same level as he had before the All-Star break, but his teammates are picking up the slack. Griffin hasn’t had a game off since the Jan. 10 matchup at Sacramento and he looks to be wearing down a bit. Casey said that he doesn’t anticipate any more rest games for Griffin down the stretch, especially with the Pistons in the playoff chase.
►The chemistry seems to be improving with the new additions, Thon Maker and Ellington, finding their niche in the rotation. Svi Mykhailiuk has played sparingly in his time but Casey said there could be more opportunities for the rookie down the stretch, with the Pistons needing an in-between wing with some height like Mykhailiuk at 6-foot-8. Glenn Robinson also is filling in some of those gaps in minutes.
►Reggie Jackson has risen back to his best play in the past couple years. He’s getting to the rim and is making defenses choose between his improved 3-point shooting — around 46 percent in the last 15 games — and his driving ability. It’s almost like getting a point guard at the trade deadline because he’s showing all the areas where he struggled in the early part of the season.