A modest stretch of recent improvement wasn’t enough for the Detroit Pistons to stick with Maurice Cheeks during a disappointing season. Whether they can remain in the hunt for a playoff spot remains to be seen.
Detroit’s mettle following the sudden coaching upheaval will be tested almost immediately with the San Antonio Spurs coming to town Monday night.
The Pistons (21-29) fired Cheeks on Sunday, a day after they won for the fourth time in six games by notching a season-high point total in a 126-109 victory over Denver. Brandon Jennings had a season-high 35 points and 12 assists and Josh Smith narrowly missed out on a triple-double with 30 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.
But after acquiring Jennings and Smith in the offseason, it appears management expected more than merely scrapping for one of the final playoff spots in the substandard Eastern Conference. The Pistons are a half-game behind Charlotte for eighth place.
"Our record does not reflect our talent and we simply need a change," owner Tom Gores said in a release. "We have not made the kind of progress that we should have over the first half of the season. This is a young team and we knew there would be growing pains, but we can be patient only as long as there is progress."
Jennings is averaging 25.1 points over his last nine – 7.4 better than his season average – while Smith, who averages 16.1, has scored 23-plus in three straight contests for the first time this season. However, Detroit ranks near the bottom of the league in many defensive categories. The Pistons surrender 102.8 points per game and let opponents shoot 46.6 percent.
Cheeks was the ninth coach since 1999-00 for the Pistons, who haven’t reached the playoffs since 2009. Assistant John Loyer is reportedly expected to take over on an interim basis in place of Cheeks, who was the first non-interim coach to be fired after 50 games or fewer since the Los Angeles Lakers fired Rudy Tomjanovich after 44 games in 2004-05.
"I respect and appreciate Maurice Cheeks and thank him for his efforts; we just require a different approach," Gores said.
The Spurs (37-14) have handled their own form of adversity well, winning four of five despite continued injury issues. Kawhi Leonard remains out indefinitely with a fractured hand, while Tony Parker was limited to 26 minutes in Saturday’s 104-100 win at Charlotte after missing Thursday’s loss at Brooklyn due to back spasms. Manu Ginobili has also missed six straight games with tightness in his left hamstring.
With Parker on the bench for the entire fourth quarter Saturday, Patty Mills took over, scoring 18 of his season-high 32 points in the final period. Mills was 10 of 13 from the field, including 5 of 5 over the last 12 minutes.
"It’s important for all of us to step up, whether you’re in the backcourt or not," Mills said. "We have managed to do OK without (Ginobili and Parker). Everyone has been able to collectively step up."
Mills is averaging 17.2 points over his last six contests after previously averaging 8.3, and San Antonio is 18-3 when he reaches double figures.
Tim Duncan tallied 16 points and 13 rebounds Saturday for his eighth double-double in his last 10 games after sitting out Thursday’s game to rest.
The Spurs, who own the league’s best road record at 19-6, have won six of eight meetings with Detroit. Parker is averaging 22.0 points while shooting 60.3 percent over his last five matchups.