After wrapping up a five-game West Coast road trip, the Detroit Pistons (19-24) return home to take on the Atlanta Hawks (24-17).
The next ten games isn’t the most difficult stretch of the season for the Detroit Pistons, but it might be the most important.
After salvaging two wins in a five-game West Coast road trip that included a brutal back-to-back against the Golden State Warriors and Utah Jazz, Detroit will play seven of their next ten games at home. Six of those opponents (Sacramento, Miami, New Orleans, Minnesota, Philadelphia and Los Angeles) have a sub-. 500 record. The other four (Atlanta, Washington, Boston and Indiana) sit ahead of the Pistons in the Eastern Conference standings.
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If Detroit performs well, taking care of business against the cellar dwellers and playing competitive ball against their Eastern Conference rivals, a turnaround could be imminent. The Pistons are only 2.5 games out of the No. 8 seed in the East, after all. But if their sloppy play and offensive stagnation continues, this stretch could all but spell the end of their competitive hopes for 2016-17.
Per Rod Beard of the Detroit News, Stan Van Gundy remains cautiously optimistic—as long as the Pistons can clean up their mistakes.
“We can still have a really good season and do everything we set out to do,” Van Gundy said Tuesday, reiterating a message he delivered to his team over the weekend. “But we can’t do it playing the way we’ve been playing.”
Detroit will get its first post-road trip test against a red-hot Atlanta team on Wednesday night.
The Hawks traded shooting guard Kyle Korver to the Cleveland Cavaliers on January 7. Reportedly eying a rebuild, they’ve been shopping forward Paul Millsap, too. But they’ve won nine of ten games since December 28 and now hold the No. 4 seed in the East.
The season series is between the Pistons and the Hawks is tied at 1-1. Detroit waxed Atlanta by 36 points on December 2, but Atlanta outlasted Detroit on December 30, 105-98. In that game, the Pistons fell into a 12-point hole before charging back in the fourth quarter. They outscored the Hawks 36-31 in the last 12 minutes before running out of time to complete the comeback.
The Detroit Pistons have been better out of the gate lately, but to stand a chance against Atlanta, they’ll have to avoid the third-quarter collapse that became routine on their West Coast road trip. Since December 8, Detroit has been outscored by 42 points in the third quarter.
Injuries have played a role in Detroit’s lack of consistency this season, and, unfortunately for the Pistons, that trend continues. Reggie Bullock will get his second start of the season in place of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope tonight, and Jon Leuer will be a game-time decision. Andre Drummond and Aron Baynes, both suffering from knee injuries, are expected to play.
Detroit won’t have to worry about Korver, who dropped 22 on the Pistons the last time these teams met, but Paul Millsap remains a big problem for the Pistons. He’s much too strong for Marcus Morris, Tobias Harris and Jon Leuer and was able to bully his way inside and draw fouls, going 7-for-8 from the free throw stripe on Dec. 30.
The difference between the good Pistons and the bad Pistons is always decided by mental focus on defense and good energy. Detroit will also have to avoid a slow start and stave off another disastrous third quarter.
The Detroit Pistons would love to get some production from Bullock, who was a -11 on 2-for-6 shooting against the Lakers. Finally, Stanley Johnson will be an important player for the Pistons regardless of whether Leuer plays. The second-year swingman has played much better as of late. He proved his value defensively and found some offensive confidence on the West Coast.
Detroit’s season is far from over. After a difficult first-half schedule, they play 21 of their final 29 games at home. Tonight’s game against the Hawks might be a barometer for how this vital stretch of games will go.