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Easier schedule offers Detroit chance to gain ground in the East

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A tough opening slate that featured 11 of their first 17 games on the road now features more home contests for a 10-9 Detroit squad that currently ranks tenth in the Eastern Conference.

Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Winners of their last two games at The Palace, the Pistons get to enjoy home cooking for two more nights before they resume traveling. And they will also enjoy an additional three-game home stand over the next two weeks. With a 6-2 record playing before the Motown maniacs, the friendlier schedule may allow Detroit to rise in this year’s surprisingly stiff standings in the NBA East.

The main matches will be against Boston (10-8), Charlotte (10-8), Chicago (11-5) and Indiana (12-5), with two of those on the road, where Detroit is 4-7. There will be two back-to-backs, with the second game in each case against a key competitor – Charlotte and Indiana.

The Pistons’ success has been largely dependent on their ninth-ranked defense, though their offense has begun to show signs of improvement (currently ranked 23rd). Their strength lies almost entirely with their starting unit, which is averaging 76.1 points of the 98.2 the team scores per game. The 3-point shooting accuracy has risen to .317 (24th), but the field goal (.419 – 28th) and free-throw (.652 – 30th) percentages remain at the bottom.

In our last fan poll for games 11-19, 60 percent expected the Pistons to win 4-5 times. The majority was on target, as the team’s record rose from 5-5 to 10-9. Let’s look now at the next nine contests as we seek to forecast the future for Stan Van Gundy’s charges.

Game 20 (Fri., Dec. 4): Bucks at Pistons

Milwaukee (7-12) has gotten off to a slow start, primarily due to a defense that has been among the NBA’s worst (29th rated) so far. Their point differential of – 7.5 also ranks them in the cellar along with the Pelicans, Lakers and 76ers. After putting together a string of four wins to reach 4-3 in early November, the Bucks have since gone 3-9. Five of their losses have been by 24 points or more. Their biggest victory was a 109-88 pasting of the Pistons on Nov. 23, after which Kris Middleton commented that Andre Drummond "doesn’t like contact." I wonder if that comment will find its way onto the Detroit locker room bulletin board ...

Advantage: Pistons

Game 21 (Sun., Dec. 6): Lakers at Pistons

This game will feature Kobe Bryant’s last trip as a player to The Palace, and will give Detroit a chance to atone for one of its more dismal efforts of this young season – a 97-85 loss to 3-15 Los Angeles. How bad are the Lakers? Bryant is their leading scorer (16.8 ppg) on a True Shooting Percentage of .418. Even worse, they gave Philadelphia its only victory Tuesday night. Then they turned around and beat the Wizards the following evening! To be fair, their early schedule has been road heavy (11 of 18 away) and they are in the midst of an eight-game road trip.

Advantage: Pistons

Game 22 (Mon., Dec. 7): Pistons at Hornets

Charlotte (10-8) has played better than many observers expected, with an unexpectedly potent offense (6th rated) that makes three-pointers at a solid clip (.355 percent) and protects the ball (1st with only 12.4 turnovers per game). Al Jefferson is out with an injured left calf muscle, but his post scoring has been deemphasized this season. Instead, perimeter scoring from Nic Batum (.388 on threes), Kemba Walker (.370) and Marvin Williams (.387) has been their strength. It will not help Detroit that this will be the second game of a back-to-back, while Charlotte will enjoy a Sunday off.

Advantage: Hornets

Game 23 (Wed., Dec. 9): Grizzlies at Pistons

After a slow start, Memphis (11-8) has banged its way back into the Western Conference’s anemic playoff race. Would you believe the seventh- and eighth-ranked teams do not have a winning record? Disgraceful! The Grizzlies offense centers around center Marc Gasol (16.1 ppg) and point guard Mike Conley (15.6 ppg), so their battles with Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson should play a pivotal role in this match. If the game comes down to free throws, Detroit could be in deep trouble because Memphis’ .840 mark is tops in the NBA.

Advantage: Pistons

Game 24 (Fri., Dec. 11): Pistons at 76ers

Thanks to the Lakers, there’s no need to fret that Detroit will be the first to lose to this woeful Philadelphia team. The 76ers have the league’s worst rated offense and their point differential is – 10.8. Rookie center Jahlil Okafor has been a bright spot, averaging 17.1 ppg and 8.1 rpg. Last year the Pistons lost three of four to Philadelphia, but one of those was during the "Josh Smith Era" and the two others were the second game of back-to-backs.

Advantage: Pistons

Game 25 (Sat., Dec. 12): Pacers at Pistons

Surprisingly second only to Cleveland in the East, 12-5 Indiana sports the NBA’s second best defense. On offense they connect on .397 percent of their threes, with Paul George leading the way at .463 percent. He’s also averaging 27.4 ppg and 8.2 rpg – numbers that make you wonder if breaking his leg was the best thing that ever happened to him. Detroit suffered its first loss of the season, 94-82, to the Pacers at The Palace on Nov. 3.

Advantage: Pacers

Game 26 (Mon., Dec. 14): Clippers at Pistons

Detroit lost the earlier match in L.A., 101-96, to a Clippers squad missing its starting backcourt. Injuries have continued to beset Chris Paul and J.J. Redick, but they are expected to be healthy for this game. Blake Griffin has been outstanding (24.7 ppg and 8.3 rpg). DeAndre Jordan lags behind Drummond in rebounding (13.2 rpg to 16.7) and free throw shooting (.373 percent to .379).

Advantage: Clippers

Game 27 (Wed., Dec. 16): Celtics at Pistons

What Boston lacks in star power they make up for with depth, so Detroit’s bench will be under even great pressure to avoid being outclassed. Seven Celtics average over 23 mpg. Isaiah Thomas (20.8 ppg and 6.2 apg) has led the offense, but Boston’s fifth-rated defense has been their greatest strength.

Advantage: Pistons

Game 28 (Fri., Dec. 18): Pistons at Bulls

With an 11-5 record and the fourth-rated defense, Chicago is near the top of the Eastern Conference standings, and will be seeking to avenge a 98-94 loss in the season’s first week. This is Jimmy Butler’s team (20.2 ppg and .390 three-point shooting), but the Bulls also have a strong bench, with eight players averaging at least 21 mpg.

Advantage: Bulls

Will an easier schedule lead to more wins for Detroit? Cast your vote and post your reasoning in the comments.