If home court advantage means anything, Detroit’s upcoming schedule is favorable, for six of their next 10 opponents must travel to Auburn Hills. Unfortunately, The Palace’s home cookin’ has not been particularly palatable, as the men from Motown have won just six of those 21 contests. But perhaps the fact that four of the upcoming visitors have losing records (and the one with the best record is burdened with Josh Smith), will allow the local fans to more fully enjoy the Pistons’ new winning ways.
Currently 10 games under .500 at 16-26, the Pistons trail 17-24 Brooklyn by one and one-half games in their quest for the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Seventh-place Miami is even within hailing distance at 18-22. But Detroit faces additional competition from Charlotte, which after a disappointing 4-15 start has reached 17-25 to move into ninth place.
The Pistons have made their own remarkable turnaround, of course. Just 3-19 before the return of Jodie Meeks, and 5-23 when Smith was waived on December 22, they immediately launched a seven-game winning streak. Most remarkably, Detroit has gone 7-3 against their last 10 opponents – even though those teams currently have a .543 winning percentage. And it should be no cause for shame that two of those three losses were to an Atlanta team that leads the Eastern Conference at 34-8.
Take a look ahead
The Pistons next 10 foes have been winning games at a .434 rate. If Detroit can continue playing at the high level that has led to an 11-3 mark since Smith departed, then another run of 7-3 (or better) should be possible. So let’s look now at what the schedule offers over the next two and one-half weeks.
Game 43 (Wed., Jan. 21): Magic at Pistons
Halfway through last season Orlando had only won 11 games, so at 15-29 they are modestly improved. Recently they have beaten Chicago and Houston, and Tobias Harris, Victor Oladipo and Nikola Vucevic give them a solid core. These teams have split their two previous contests, with the visitors winning each time. Since the Post-Smith Pistons won a 109-86 rout to close out December’s schedule, we can expect the Magic to be looking for revenge. But Detroit still should be favored to prevail over Stan Van Gundy’s old team.
Game 44 (Sat., Jan. 24): Pistons at Bucks
Milwaukee has been a true surprise, playing above .500 ball even without any consistent contribution from center Larry Sanders (who has not played since before Christmas and is now serving a suspension for violating the NBA’s anti-drug rules). Detroit got its second win of the year over the Bucks, but then dropped the next two matches back in November. Brandon Jennings will certainly seek to be his most swaggy self before his former fans, and Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond should be able to dominate inside.
Game 45 (Sun., Jan. 25): Pistons at Raptors
Toronto has got DeMar DeRozan back in its starting lineup, and will be looking to avenge its 114-111 loss earlier this month at the Air Canada Centre. Detroit will need to get off to a better start (last time they trailed by 12 at the half), but this healthier Raptors roster will be more difficult to defeat.
Game 46 (Tues., Jan. 27): Cavaliers at Pistons
LeBron James is back after missing eight games due to injury, and has been playing at a high level. With him they are 21-12; without him they are 1-8. Yet even with James, Cleveland lost convincingly at home to Detroit, 103-80, back in late December. Since then the Cavs have shipped out Dion Waiters and added Timofey Mozgov at center and J.R. Smith at guard. They have displayed one of the NBA’s worst defenses, so a strong effort from the Pistons should be able to overcome their potent offense.
Game 47 (Wed., Jan. 28): Pistons at 76ers
Detroit ended a two-game losing streak to this hapless Philadelphia team just last week, taking an early lead and never allowing the 76ers to seriously threaten it. While anything is possible (they have also beaten Cleveland, Miami and New Orleans on their way to an 8-33 record), there is no reason to expect the Pistons to be outscored by the league’s worst offense.
Game 48 (Sat., Jan. 31): Rockets at Pistons
While Detroit has been on a roll, Houston’s early season ascent has slowed since Smith came onboard. This will be the Rockets’ sixth game in 10 days, and they play in Boston the night before. So they may not be at their best, while the Pistons should be rested. The story line for this game is obvious, but the key to the outcome will probably be the Drummond-Dwight Howard battle in the paint and how well MVP candidate James Harden can be contained.
Advantage: Pistons (narrowly)
Game 49 (Tues., Feb. 3): Heat at Pistons
With the Heat sitting now in seventh place, but just a few games ahead of Detroit, the outcome of this game could tighten up the playoff race. Miami has been bolstered upfront by strong play from Hassan Whiteside, and Dwayne Wade has been fairly healthy (he’s started and played in 30 of their 40 games; they are 5-5 without him). This is a good opportunity for Van Gundy to conquer another team that he once coached.
Game 50 (Wed., Feb. 4): Pistons at Pacers
Detroit has downed Indiana twice this year, though the last victory was a 98-96 squeaker won in the last second by a Drummond tip-in. Their stout defense keeps them in games, and they will be well-rested while the Pistons will be playing the second game of a back-to-back. A letdown may be in store – especially if they beat the Heat the night before.
Game 51 (Fri., Feb. 6): Nuggets at Pistons
This will be a rematch of Detroit’s season opener, which was held at the Pepsi Center and ended in an 89-79 defeat. Kenneth Faried will not have Smith to clown around with this night, so hopefully he will not again abuse the Pistons inside (22 points, 17 rebounds). With Mozgov now in Cleveland and JaVale McGee injured, and Greg Monroe available for Detroit, a different outcome should be expected.
Game 52 (Sun., Feb. 8): Timberwolves at Pistons
Here the NBA schedule maker shows very little imagination, as Detroit next hosts the team they visited on their second game of the season. If not for Caron Butler’s 24 points, this 97-91 loss would not have been that close. Minnesota has been predictably bad (currently they are 7-33), and injuries have decimated them. But rookie Andrew Wiggins has been sensational lately, averaging 22 ppg and shooting .503/.444/.864 for January. Nevertheless, the Pistons should have more than enough weapons to overcome the Timberwolves.
What can we expect?
With an easier slate ahead, can Detroit go 8-2 to reach 24-28? That would be an astounding 19-5 run in the Anthony Tolliver Era, and would certainly position them to battle for a playoff spot over their final 30 games. The key will be to avoid stumbling against lesser opponents, continue playing at a high level, and begin taking maximum advantage of home court advantage.
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