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As All-Star Break approaches, can Pistons keep playoff hopes alive?

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Detroit went just 4-6 over its last 10 games, yet did not lose any ground on two close rivals - Brooklyn and Miami. With critical contests coming up, can they move ahead in the standings?

Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

How do we make sense of the fact that the Pistons can cool the jets of one of the West’s best, the Houston Rockets, and freeze out the Miami Heat, but also lose convincingly to two of the NBA’s worst – Minnesota and Philadelphia? If the competition for a playoff spot goes down to the wire in April, those losses may loom large. For now they have kept 20-32 Detroit from moving ahead of 21-30 Brooklyn into ninth place.

While their next 10 games will be broken up by a nine-day rest due to the All-Star Break, the Pistons will play two more back-to-backs and will face only one squad with a poorer record than their own. This slate is bookended by away and home matches versus the Charlotte Hornets, who are currently tied with Miami for seventh place in the Eastern Conference at 22-29. Detroit will enjoy home court advantage in six of these games, and they will need all the fan support they can muster to avoid reaching 40 losses.

Take a look ahead

The Pistons next 10 foes sport a winning percentage of .538. Detroit has gone 15-9 since Josh Smith was waived, but has stumbled to a 3-5 record without point guard Brandon Jennings, who was lost to a season-ending Achilles tendon injury on January 24th. D.J. Augustin has done very well as a starter (20.4 points and 8.9 assists per game), but Jennings’ “swag” appears irreplaceable. New backup point guard John Lucas III has performed adequately and is apparently here to stay. Now let’s examine the gauntlet the Pistons must run in the coming month in order to stay in the chase for a postseason berth.

Game 53 (Tues., Feb. 10): Pistons at Hornets

One of the surprises of the NBA last season, Charlotte began this one with a 4-15 mark due to a 10-game losing skid. They have since righted the ship, winning 18 of 32. They fell to both Philadelphia and Indiana over the weekend in a back-to-back. Point guard Kemba Walker is out for the next six weeks, but Brian Roberts and Gary Neal have filled the gap acceptably. The Hornets struggle to score, but boast a seventh-rated defense. The key for Detroit will be to contain center Al Jefferson.

Advantage: Hornets

Game 54 (Wed., Feb. 11): Spurs at Pistons

There is nothing like another back-to-back, this time with next game against the defending champions. Detroit downed them with a miracle comeback on the road back on Jan. 6, but these Spurs have a healthy Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker. Sporting a 32-19 record as of now, they feature the league’s second best rated defense. San Antonio is fresh off a narrow 95-93 win in Indiana Monday night for Coach Gregg Popovich's 1,000 victory.

Advantage: Spurs

Game 55 (Fri., Feb. 20): Bulls at Pistons

Chicago will come to town for Detroit’s first match after the break. These two last faced off way back on Nov. 10, with the Bulls winning at home 102-91. Jimmy Butler’s great season (20.7 ppg) has been their big news as Derrick Rose struggles to return to his pre-injuries form, and 34-year-old Pau Gasol is averaging a double-double (18.3 ppg, 12.1 rpg). Perhaps rest and practice time will favor the home team.

Advantage: Pistons

Game 56 (Sun., Feb. 22): Wizards at Pistons

Here is another match against a foe that is headed to the playoffs, led by point guard John Wall (17.5 ppg, 10.2 apg). Washington has a solid combination of veteran savvy and youth, with their top three-point shooters being 21-year-old Bradley Beal (.436), 35-year-old Rasual Butler (.439) and 35-year-old Paul Pierce (.387). They have had some ups and downs, including a five-game losing streak before the break, but they are competing neck-and-neck with Chicago and Cleveland for the third seed in the East.

Advantage: Pistons

Game 57 (Tues., Feb. 24): Cavaliers at Pistons

Cleveland has been on a roll since LeBron James came back after missing eight games with an injury (the Cavs went 1-7), reeling off a 12-game winning streak that included a 103-95 victory at The Palace. Only two Cleveland cagers scored in double figures, but James and Kyrie Irving combined for 70 points. Drummond and Monroe will need to dominate inside for Detroit to have a chance.

Advantage: Cavaliers

Game 58 (Fri., Feb. 27): Knicks at Pistons

Finally the schedule grants the men of Motown a breather! New York is enduring its worst season in franchise history, though all of their wins have come when Carmelo Anthony was healthy (they are 0-12 without him). Detroit has beaten the Knicks both at home and away previously, both with and without facing Melo. If any game this month should be a certain win for Van Gundy’s crew, this one is it. (Do not remind me that we have already lost to both Minnesota and Philadelphia – twice!)

Advantage: Pistons

Game 59 (Sat., Feb. 28): Pistons at Wizards

After enjoying over two straight weeks at home, Detroit must hit the road and travel to our nation’s capitol. It will not help that this game is the second of yet another back-to-back, though the Wiz will also be coming off a road trip to Philadelphia. Still, assuming that the Pistons are coming off the high of a victory over Phil Jackson’s juggernaut, this will be a difficult matchup.

Advantage: Wizards

Game 60 (Sat., Mar. 4): Pistons at Pelicans

Led by awesome Anthony Davis (24.5 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 2.7 blocks per game) New Orleans is on track for their first winning season since losing Chris Paul four years ago. He was superb in a 105-94 conquest at The Palace in mid-January, and regularly receives solid performances from his supporting cast. While Detroit should celebrate my birthday with a resounding triumph, I’m not betting my lunch money on it this time.

Advantage: Pelicans

Game 61 (Sat., Mar. 6): Pistons at Rockets

Since Josh Smith left, there have been few victories any sweeter then on the last evening of January, when he returned with his new team and they were convincingly dismantled, 114-101. Augustin and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope totaled 56 points, six Pistons scored in double figures, and Smith shot 3-11 to remind us of the good old days. Dwight Howard may still be missing in action for Houston, but they have continued to win without him. It probably is not wise to expect lightning to strike twice for Detroit, although daring Smith to shoot threes is still a good defensive game plan.

Advantage: Rockets

Game 62 (Sun., Mar. 8): Hornets at Pistons

When Detroit welcomes Michael Jordan’s team to town, this game could be a battle for playoff position or a desperate effort to get back in the chase. Charlotte’s schedule after the break will also feature some challenging opponents, so these two could be slugging it out for eighth place this night. Kemba Walker still figures to be sidelined.

Advantage: Pistons

What can we expect?

Given the strength of their next 10 opponents, even matching the 4-6 mark they last posted would be a solid achievement. While 24-38 is not a great record, it is still likely to leave Detroit within hailing distance of the East’s last playoff seed. At best it will be an uphill climb, but what else can we expect after starting the season 5-23?

What are your expectations for the Pistons next 10 games? Vote in the attached poll and then share your thoughts.