Detroit coach talks about team's 112-107 overtime victory over Toronto, which put the Pistons back at .500 (31-31) and vaulted them into sixth place in the Eastern Conference. The Detroit News


Detroit — The Pistons are in a playoff chase, in case you haven’t noticed. Winning in a raucous arena against a top opponent in a tense, emotional game, it finally started to feel like it.

There were big shots and big stops, technical fouls and nasty scowls. If the Pistons want to be treated seriously, not like a curiosity, this is the type of game they have to win, the type of opponent they have to beat. Toronto, with the second-best record in the league, opted to rest its star player, Kawhi Leonard, and if it was a gift, the Pistons didn’t waste it.

The best game and best show of the season unfolded Sunday night in Little Caesars Arena, and the Pistons’ 112-107 overtime victory had the sweet, sweaty smell of heated competition. Thousands of Toronto fans flooded across the border and nearly filled the arena, ramping up the atmosphere, with each side trying to outshout (or outshoot) the other.

“We found a way, gritty win,” coach Dwane Casey said. “We’re developing an identity that we’ve got to have to win big-time in this league. That was a playoff game, the way it’s gonna be.”

It sure had that look, even as Leonard sat courtside in street clothes. The Raptors (46-18) still are 13-5 when Leonard hasn’t played, and at times, it sounded like they were at home. So while this is not a victory to be wildly celebrated, it’s not to be dismissed either. The Pistons won the other meeting against Casey’s former team, 106-104 in Toronto, and Leonard played in that one.

In this one, the Pistons overcame a brilliant performance by Kyle Lowry, then scored the final 10 points in overtime. They wiped out a 107-102 deficit on Reggie Jackson’s game-tying 3-pointer with 1:23 remaining. From there, Andre Drummond and Luke Kennard hit clutch free throws, the defense made five consecutive stops and the Pistons’ portion of the crowd finally overwhelmed the Raptors faithful.

This could be a first-round playoff matchup, although with their ninth victory in 11 games, the Pistons have climbed to break even (31-31) and into the sixth seed by half a game over Brooklyn. At the moment, they’re looking at a 3-6 matchup against Indiana.

Snarly bunch

Obviously that can change. Obviously no one is ready to call the Pistons a dangerous threat. But the way they’re playing, they might be evolving into something different, a team with a feisty edge. Andre Drummond is playing with a new-found ferocity, and had 15 points, 17 rebounds and an unreal plus-27 while battling foul trouble against the Raptors.


Pistons center reflects on team's 112-107 victory in overtime over the Raptors where he finished with 15 points and 17 rebounds. The Detroit News

“We just played tough the entire way, didn’t back down when they got up into us and played physical,” Drummond said. “If we keep playing that way, we’ll be a very, very good team, and make it far in the playoffs. I think we’re clicking on all cylinders, having fun, that’s what it really boils down to.”

If Drummond is overstating the Pistons’ playoff possibilities, he’s also underlining their confidence. It started with Blake Griffin and has spread, and now the team doesn’t just stand around waiting for Griffin to muscle to the basket.

Jackson has been terrific for more than a month, and has scored in double figures 16 straight games. Kennard has stopped deferring and started firing, shooting better than he ever has. He had 19 points against the Raptors, 5-for-9 on 3-pointers, and is hitting 47 percent on deep shots his past 13 games.

“Watching somebody gain confidence, watching a team gain confidence, is a really fun thing to be a part of,” said Griffin, who had 27 points. “And part of being a leader is instilling that confidence in guys. To everybody’s credit, we stuck with it. We had an awful December, a pretty bad January, and my message to our guys is, what have we done? We’ve had a good stretch, a lot of teams have good stretches. Being the sixth or seventh seed is absolutely nothing to be proud of.”

Locked-in Luke

The Pistons know they burned the trust of fans early on, and they heard all the noise at the trade deadline. But since then, they’ve played more connected, as if they have less to lose. Jackson got healthier and Drummond get more determined and even Kennard admits he got angrier.

The two players that departed, Reggie Bullock and Stanley Johnson, were one-dimensional and not overly aggressive on offense. Kennard has nicely assumed that role, and all of a sudden a one-man offense has morphed into something more efficient and versatile.

“(Coach) expects a lot out of me, and I’m just trying to show him I can play angry, can play mad and can play aggressive on both ends of the floor,” Kennard said recently. “The pace has been great, the point guards are getting the ball up the floor really fast, and we got guys ready to shoot.”

For much of his two seasons here, Kennard has been the unfortunate one drafted in the first round instead of Utah star Donovan Mitchell. Now he’s a guy who unabashedly says, “Every shot I shoot I think is going in.”

Of course, positive talk guarantees nothing in this league, and the Pistons haven’t played well enough long enough to earn the benefit of the doubt, yet. But compared to a month ago, the attitude shift is stark, and team roles are much better defined. Yes, the schedule has lightened, but that’s partly because it was tough earlier. In their remaining 20 games, the Pistons will face the 17th-easiest slate.

There’s a chance to build on this, no matter where it ends up going. Again, with all their hefty contracts, the Pistons were in no position to pull blockbuster trades, so they’re riding it out, as if freed of the speculation, for now.

 “Everybody’s trusting everybody,” Casey said. “Blake’s trusting his teammates, making the passes, because they’re sending the kitchen sink at him. Guys are doing a good job of delivering when he does kick it out.”

One year ago, Casey was in Toronto and you can see the imprint he left behind, although the roster has changed. The Raptors are all about tenacity and a battling defense. You see it in Lowry, who scored 35, and in physical players such as Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol.

And now, gradually, perhaps we’re seeing it in the Pistons, who aren’t close to the Raptors in depth of talent, and obviously not close in the standings. This was as taut and heated as a game can be but it’s not the playoffs, and the Pistons know it. At least they’re getting a glimpse at how it looks, and how it feels.

Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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