With the season almost halfway over, Detroit has already won half of its games. We have to hark back to 2008-09 (the last time they made the playoffs) to find a Pistons team with a better record through game 37 (22-15). Now 21-16 after going 5-4 in the last nine contests, the schedule ahead stiffens considerably. Their next four opponents are all veteran playoff teams, with two of the first three easily the class of the league.
After facing this "fearsome foursome," Detroit will play five games against lesser squads. Four of these matches will be on the road, however, where they have an 8-11 record. In an Eastern Conference in which only a couple of wins and losses separate the teams ranked three through eight, the Pistons will need to make a respectable showing to hold on to or move up from their current position as the sixth seed (tied with Indiana).
In our last poll, 65 percent thought Detroit would win six-seven games, but the 21 percent who chose four-five were closest to the mark. Let’s look now at the prospects for games 38-46 to help us project how the men from Motown may fare this month.
Game 38 (Tues., Jan. 12): Spurs at Pistons
In a normal season a 32-6 record should lead the league. Alas, for San Antonio that record still trails Golden State’s 35-2 mark. But with the top rated defense and third rated offense, the Spurs are a fearsome foe to face. They will be playing the second game of a back-to-back after a Monday night match with Brooklyn. Kawhi Leonard (20.7 points per game) is playing superbly and LaMarcus Aldridge has fit in seamlessly with this veteran team. San Antonio has yet to lose at home, but they have lost on the road to Houston, Toronto, Chicago, New Orleans, Oklahoma City and Washington. The Pistons are 13-5 at home, and often play up (or down) to the level of their competition, so we can expect a hard-fought competitive contest.
Game 39 (Thurs., Jan. 14): Pistons at Grizzlies
Detroit suffered a heart-breaking home loss in December on a last second shot by Matt Barnes, and will be looking for revenge. Memphis (21-18) will be in the middle of a five-game home stand that began with a 101-98 victory over Boston Sunday night. They might be missing Mike Conley and Courtney Lee, who both are battling injuries. The Grizzlies are 13-6 at home, so expect them to be a challenging opponent for the visitors.
Game 40 (Sat., Jan. 16): Warriors at Pistons
This should be a big night at the Palace, as the NBA champs and Michigan State alum Draymond Green come to town, and Ben Wallace’s jersey will be retired. A packed house should be on hand, and hopefully the presence of "Big Ben" will inspire the Pistons to victory. Golden State averages about 115 points per game, so containing the league’s highest octane offense will be a tall order. The Warriors are one of only two teams (the Bucks are the other) who have scored as much 109 points against Detroit this season.
Game 41: (Mon., Jan. 18): Bulls at Pistons
Chicago (22-13) had run off six wins in a row before a Saturday night loss in Atlanta. Detroit has had the Bulls’ number in both previous meetings this season, the last the exhausting four overtime marathon at the United Center a month ago. Derrick Rose is back in the line-up after missing three games, but this is now Jimmy Butler’s team. He’s averaged 28.6 points, 6.6 assists and ten trips to the foul line in January. Can the Pistons make it three in a row over their old nemesis in this Martin Luther King Day matinee?
Game 42: (Wed., Jan. 20): Pistons at Rockets
Detroit heads off now for a four-game road trip. They won the first match at home on Nov. 30 against a Houston team that had struggled out of the gate, recently changed head coaches, and was playing the second night of a back-to-back. Since then they’ve gone 12-7, and they beat Indiana at home in overtime Sunday night to square their record at 19-19. Dwight Howard has been hindered by back problems, but he was dominant inside versus the Pacers. James Harden (28.1 ppg, 6.7 apg) continues to lead a potent ninth rated offense.
Game 43: (Thurs., Jan. 21): Pistons at Pelicans
New Orleans (11-25) has struggled under new coach Alvin Gentry, chiefly because their defense gives up 106 ppg. Anthony Davis (22.8 ppg, 10.8 rpg) is the star, but they have capable scorers in Ryan Anderson, Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon and Jrue Holiday. This will be the second game of a back-to-back for Detroit, though "The Big Easy" is a short hop from Houston.
Game 44: (Sat., Jan. 23): Pistons at Nuggets
Denver (14-24) gave the keys to 19-year-old Emmanuel Mudiay to start the season, but he broke down and missed 14 games due to a sprained ankle. He recently returned, but he’s struggled with poor shooting and lots of turnovers (4.0 per game). Finally healthy, Danilo Gallinari leads all scorers with 18.6 ppg, and Will Barton has averaged 15.8 ppg off the bench. Rookie Nicola Jokic has started and played well at center lately. This is the first match between these teams this season; the next meeting at The Palace will feature a Chauncey Billups' jersey retirement ceremony.
Game 45: (Mon., Jan. 25): Pistons at Jazz
Utah (17-20) is another Western Conference team that has disappointed, though they still have a chance at making the playoffs. Injuries have played a major role, as point guard Dante Exum was lost prior to the season and Gordon Hayward (19.3 ppg) is the only starter who has played every night. Losing defensive anchor Rudy Gobert for 20 games was a big blow, but he’s back now. Trey Burke has been productive (12.1 ppg) off the bench. The Pistons beat the Jazz in their home opener at The Palace, 92-87.
Game 46: (Wed., Jan. 27): 76ers at Pistons
After four games in six nights on the road, the NBA schedule maker could hardly have awarded Detroit a better break than a visit from 4-36 Philadelphia. They have the league’s worst offense and shoot free throws only marginally better than the Pistons. Rookie Jahlil Okafor (17.4 ppg, 7.5 rpg) has shown promise and Ish Smith (16.2 ppg, 7.8 apg) has played very well since being acquired from New Orleans in late December. Three of the 76ers wins have come since that trade. Detroit won the first match at Philadelphia in December, 107-95.
These nine games have the potential to launch the Pistons into the second half of the season with confidence and momentum, send them spiraling down out of the playoff race, or – more likely – keep them in the mix among a half dozen other squads battling for "pole position." Vote the results that you predict and share your thought process in the comments.