Pistons hit difficult stretch with Warriors, Cavs on deck
Auburn Hills — Even after losing their fourth game in a row on Wednesday night, the Pistons got some consolation in the fact that they played their best team defense during the current skid in the 98-86 loss to the Grizzlies.
Just in time for a two-game gauntlet that includes matchups against each of the defending conference champions: Friday against the Golden State Warriors and Monday versus the NBA-champion Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Pistons (14-17) get to the meat of their schedule at maybe the most inopportune time — when they’re knee-deep in roster disarray, the defense has been leaky and the confidence is probably as low as it’s been all season, especially after a players-only meeting that didn’t slow the nosedive.
Now, comes the hard part.
The Warriors, of course, tweaked their roster by adding Kevin Durant to their offensive armada of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. With their 25-4 start before Thursday’s game at Brooklyn, Golden State looks to be on the way to another showdown with the Cavaliers for the second title in three years for either squad.
For the Pistons, it’s an opportunity to accelerate on their road to recovery — or sink deeper into their dejection.
“This is a tough stretch; this is not a league for the faint of heart. It’s not a league that’s going to feel sorry for you and give you any breaks,” coach Stan Van Gundy told reporters on Thursday. “You’re going to have to play. We know we’ve had a difficult early-season schedule and we still will. We’ll go through these first 33 games and we’ll have been through the gauntlet.
“That’s the way this league is, so we have to play better.”
The Warriors are clicking on all cylinders, ranking second in both offensive and defensive efficiency, despite the roster overhaul to make room for Durant, who leads them in scoring (25.7), is second in rebounds (8.4) and third in assists (4.6).
While there was some concern that they wouldn’t be able to share the ball enough to appease all of their Big Four, they’ve bucked that notion, with a league-high 31.3 assists per game — almost six more than the No. 2 team (Houston).
With so many options on offense, having Durant, in many ways, has made things easier for everyone.
“Whereas Kevin Durant drew a lot of double-teams in Oklahoma City, he’s not seeing those now. It’s hard to go double these guys,” Van Gundy said. “He gets down and posts you and that’s a tough team to decide you’re going to go double guys and they’re standing out there with Klay Thompson and Steph Curry. That’s hard.
“Even if guys have to, in some way, sacrifice shots, their quality of shots becomes a lot better and in a lot of ways, a lot easier. I’m sure he doesn’t have a lot of complaints and those guys don’t have a lot of complaints either.”
As daunting as the Warriors are on the offensive end, they’re just as scary on defense. Though they lost Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut, they’ve solidified things with Zaza Pachulia and Green — whose status is unclear after he traveled back to the Bay Area to be with his family for the birth of his son.
Green is having another stellar year defensively — regarded as another top candidate for defensive player of the year — but even with their roster moves, he’s still the guts and glue.
“They’re still good defensively; they haven’t been dominant defensively. If you lose a guy like Bogut, that’s going to happen. Harrison Barnes for them at least was a defensive-minded guy,” Van Gundy said. “They still have good defenders; Draymond Green is obviously is a very, very good defender. Pachulia gives you a good effort every night; Klay Thompson is an elite defender at the (shooting guard).
“They’ve still got good defenders and they play hard. They’re a good defensive team, but they aren’t quite defensively what they were a year ago — but they’re so damn good offensively that it hasn’t mattered.”
Last season, the Pistons were struggling during a stretch between late December and early January and the Warriors visited The Palace, on Jan. 16 — the same night as Ben Wallace’s jersey retirement. The Pistons prevailed, 113-95, despite 38 points from Curry.
They’ll be looking for a similar surprise performance this time around. It’s a difficult stretch, but the Pistons aren’t backing down from the challenge, no matter what the results have been in the past two weeks.
“We’ll see how tough it is when we see those teams,” Jackson said. “We know there are good teams in the league but we’re still a confident group, so we’re ready to get out here and battle anybody.”
PISTONS VS. WARRIORS
Tipoffs: 7:30 Friday, The Palace of Auburn Hills
Outlook: The good news is that the Warriors are coming off a back-to-back, having played in Brooklyn on Thursday night. The bad news: they’re the Warriors and have only four losses (pending Thursday’s game at BKN), while the Pistons have lost their last four games.