When the NBA schedule was released last fall, not many would have predicted that a matchup between the Pistons and Orlando Magic in late March would have major playoff implications.
That’s where the Pistons find themselves, among five teams clawing for the last three playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. The Pistons (37-37) went 1-3 on their four-game western gauntlet and in the jumbled playoff chase, they’re in seventh place, a half-game behind the Brooklyn Nets.
The Magic (37-38) have won six straight including Tuesday’s victory over the Heat, leapfrogging Miami into eighth. It highlights a final two weeks of the regular season, in which the Charlotte Hornets are in 10th place, only 1 1/2 games behind the Magic and still in playoff contention.
The Pistons lost at Denver on Tuesday, after scoring only nine points in the first quarter and coming back from a 27-point deficit to cut it to one in the final minute. Last week, the Pistons were sitting in sixth place, with a nice cushion, but in a week-to-week flurry of the playoff race, things change quickly.
That makes Thursday’s matchup against the Magic more of a showdown — with playoff implications — than just another game on the schedule.
“This time of year, these games are all huge. A game like this is a good test for us. Being this close to the end of the regular season and the playoffs, you want to see guys fight like this is the playoffs. That’s going to be my message to everybody,” Griffin said after Tuesday’s loss.
“This time last year, we were on the outside looking in, four or five games out of the playoffs. I can’t say this is where we want to be — we want to be higher than this — but it’s a chance to lay this foundation in Coach Casey’s first year and move forward. This is a good place for us to be.”
Five of the Pistons’ final eight games are at home, where they have won nine straight, dating to their Feb. 2 loss to the Clippers. It’s an encouraging piece of their final sprint toward the playoffs but the first step is against the Magic.
“Playoff game. Finals game. They went into Miami and took care of business with six in a row,” guard Wayne Ellington said. “They have that sense of urgency right now and we have to turn ours up. We can’t let anybody come in our house and take a game that’s so important.
We have to keep it going. We’re comfortable at home and we’ve been getting it done. We have that home crowd behind us and it feels good. It’s a good thing that we’re going home.”
In their four-game western trip, the Pistons’ losses came against the current top three teams in the Western Conference but featured two slow starts in the first quarters that made the comebacks difficult, uphill climbs.
Casey rebuffed the notion that the familiar refrain about Denver’s mile-high altitude was a factor. In his mind, the Pistons just didn’t have the right approach to opening the game and playing with enough motivation.
If they had played in the first quarter like they did in the second half — beginning on the defensive end — the game might have turned out differently.
“That’s what’s frustrating because that’s the type of defense we’re asking for. I understand the altitude and all that bull crap. Everybody’s been here for years,” Casey said. “You understand that coming in and you have to be ready to compete at jump-ball. All this propaganda doesn’t matter when you’re going against a team that’s about getting down, dirty and nasty and fighting and competing for 48 minutes — not 24. We only competed for 24.”
Pistons vs. Magic
Tip-off: 7 Thursday, Little Caesars Arena
Outlook: After finishing their four-game western trip with just one win, the Pistons (37-37) find themselves in the muck with a chance of missing the playoffs. The Magic (37-38) have won six straight and have vaulted into eighth in the East, a half-game behind the Pistons.