With the 2015-16 season past the midway mark, the playoff pursuit in the East is shaping up to be a photo finish. Twelve teams have very legitimate aspirations, and even disappointing Milwaukee is still in the running. Cleveland and Toronto, each with 30 or more wins, look to have the top spots in hand. But the competition for the remaining six slots looks wide open. After the Cavaliers on Friday (a loss), the Pistons see the Raptors both on the road and at home before the All Star Game comes to Air Canada Centre on Valentine’s Day.
Victories in all these contests would make the rest of the league stand up and take notice. And losses would indicate that Detroit is destined merely to slog it out with the rest of the East’s wannabes for spots three through eight. Three of those teams are also on tap in the next two weeks, so they will all be jockeying for position with the Pistons.
Detroit’s past nine games were mostly against the Western Conference, and they went 4-5 – an outcome foreseen by 57 percent in our previous fan poll. So let’s look ahead to consider where the Motor City’s finest, currently tied at sixth with Miami, might find themselves going into the All-Star Break.
Game 47 (Fri., Jan. 29): Cavaliers at Pistons
The recent firing of David Blatt and hiring of Tyronn Lue to direct the Cavs has sparked plenty of controversy, but the more important change since these teams last fought is the return of Kyrie Irving. He’s only been back in action for a little more than a month, so his game is still a work in progress (15.5 points per game and shooting .270 percent from three). But along with LeBron James and Kevin Love, he gives 32-12 Cleveland a potent "Big 3." Detroit won 104-99 in the first match on November 17th, also at The Palace, behind double-doubles from Andre Drummond (25 points and 18 rebounds) and Reggie Jackson (23 points and 12 assists).
Advantage: Cavaliers (114-106 loss)
Game 48 (Sat., Jan. 30): Pistons at Raptors
Detroit has yet to win the second game of a back-to-back when it is on the road, and this contest with 31-15 Toronto will not make breaking that string any easier. At least it will be a short jaunt! This will be the final match of a seven-game home stand for the Raptors, before they embark on a five-game road trip that will take them to Auburn Hills in nine more days. With 10 wins in a row, they are the East’s hottest team.
Game 49 (Mon., Feb. 1): Pistons at Nets
Brooklyn is another team that has changed coaches since the last time they faced Detroit, as Lionel Hollins has given way to Tony Brown. The Pistons lost the first meeting at The Barclays Center on November 29th, 83-87. They avenged that loss at home on January 9th, 103-89. Brook Lopez (19.6 ppg, 8.4 rpg) and Thaddeus Young (15.2 ppg, 9.0 rpg) have done the heavy lifting for the 12-34 Nets, who lost starting point guard Jarrett Jack for the season to a torn ACL.
Game 50 (Wed., Feb. 3): Pistons at Celtics
Currently in fifth place at 26-21, Boston sports the NBA’s second best rated defense. Isaiah Thomas sparks the offense with his 21.6 ppg and 6.6 apg. Detroit leads the season series 2-1, having downed the Celtics, 99-94, on January 6th at the Garden. That loss was the beginning of a four game slide, but Boston has since put together a four game win streak.
Game 51 (Thurs., Feb. 4): Knicks at Pistons
Detroit will return home to face 22-26 New York, which won the first meeting at Madison Square Garden on December 29th, 108-96. Carmelo Anthony is the offensive star (21.3 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 4.0 apg), and rookie Kristaps Porzingis (14.0 ppg, 7.8 rpg) has exceeded all expectations. Jackson’s counterpart at point guard is 34-year-old Jose Calderon, who has never been known for his defense, so he will need to convincingly win this matchup. This game is scheduled to be seen on TNT.
Game 52 (Sat., Feb. 6): Pistons at Pacers
Since beating Detroit on January 2nd, 94-82, Indiana has stumbled in 2016, going 5-8. With the third rated defense and Paul George doing a lot of everything (23.9 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 3.8 apg, .381 three-point shooting), they are still a formidable foe. Rookie Myles Turner is back in action after missing 21 games, and has averaged nearly 20 points per game in his last six outings.
Game 53 (Mon., Feb. 8): Raptors at Pistons
This rematch will pit Toronto’s Kyle Lowry (20.9 ppg, 6.4 apg, .388 from three) and DeMar DeRozan (23.0 ppg) against Jackson (19.3 ppg, 6.5 apg, .362 on threes) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (14.7 ppg). This battle of the backcourts alone could be worth the price of admission. Big summer free agent signing DeMarre Carroll has been out since early January recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery, and is not expected back until after the All-Star Break.
Game 54: (Wed., Feb. 10): Nuggets at Pistons
The 101-104 loss at the Pepsi Center on January 23rd was befuddling, as –etroit was outscored 39-20 in the third quarter. Rookies Emmanuel Mudiay and Nikola Jokic like pick-and-roll partners for the ages, and Danilo Gallinari earned his pay at the free throw line (13-16). Unfortunately for Detroit, he was not content with that performance, so he also buried a dagger three-pointer in the fourth. The Palace should be rocking again as Chauncey Billups, MVP of the 2004 title team, will have his jersey retired at halftime. On his last visit, when Ben Wallace was similarly recognized, the Pistons plastered the Warriors, 113-95.
Clearly these eight games will not allow Detroit to coast into the All-Star Break. But for a team that often seems to play its best against the best, this challenging slate could be just what they need to spur them toward playing with greater consistency. Vote your projection in the attached poll and then feel free to share your reasons in the comments.