Everyone who follows the NBA knows when the 2015-2016 Detroit Pistons first made a very large impression on the league.
It was the second Sunday night of the season — Sunday, November 8, 2015.
The Pistons trailed by 13 at the start of the fourth quarter in Portland against the Trail Blazers. Then they made history.
A 41-11 fourth-quarter, complete with a 24-0 run, vaulted Detroit to an exhilarating (and ultimately not-that-close) 120-103 triumph in the Pacific Northwest.
Reggie Jackson scored 26 points in that fourth quarter. Andre Drummond finished the game with 29 points and 27 rebounds. The young Pistons announced their presence — not just to Portland, but the rest of the league. They stood at 5-1 through six games. Coach Stan Van Gundy’s rebuild was well ahead of schedule.
Then came reality, and the growing pains that accompany it.
The Pistons lost eight of their next 11 to drop to 8-9 on the season. They fell into the jumble of the Eastern Conference, flailing about for many months in an attempt to develop high-end consistency. The Pistons embarked on the same rollercoaster ride most other East playoff contenders have endured at some point in the campaign, but after a 2-8 stretch (Jan. 29 through Feb. 21, with wins over Brooklyn and the Knicks) left them at 27-29, their playoff hopes stood well below 50-50.
Could this young team, which had taken so many punches, find its best identity and keep it long enough to make a successful playoff push?
The final answer won’t be found until the Pistons either clinch a playoff berth or are eliminated from the chase. That said, the odds are now very much in favor of them. This team has traveled many miles over the past five weeks.
Following Friday night’s 112-105 win over the Charlotte Hornets in a game which wasn’t nearly that close, the Pistons are not only solidifying their hold on the 8 seed in the East; they’re making a move at the 7 seed and an important cushion for the coming weeks, should they need it.
Detroit’s win over Charlotte puts the Pistons half a game behind Indiana for that 7 seed. If the East creates one more bumper-car dynamic in the races for the final few playoff spots, Detroit could enter the final two or three games of the season in a battle for positioning in the 7 and 8 slots, as opposed to the much more consequential in-or-out drama which involves the eighth- and ninth-place teams in the East.
The Pistons’ road to an improved playoff position has certainly depended on some luck. The Chicago Bulls are imploding, for one thing. The Washington Wizards lost Friday night at home to the Minnesota Timberwolves, which dramatically reduces their already-small margin for error.
This series of events from Monday against the Milwaukee Bucks also aided the Pistons’ cause:
NBA: Six missed calls in final two minutes of Pistons' one-point win over Bucks.
All six went in Pistons' favor https://t.co/z6vaWNO4TE
— Dan Feldman (@DanFeldmanNBA) March 22, 2016
Yet, as fortunate as the Pistons have been, they have certainly made their own luck, and deserve to be seen as the chief architects of their vastly improved situation.
For one thing, the Pistons — fighting uphill against the Bucks throughout Monday night’s game — could have folded the tent and not made the endgame as close as it became. It’s a timeless sports truth: Never put yourself in a position where one bad call can beat you. The inverse is also true: Put yourself in position where one lucky play can win — you never know when trailing by one, as opposed to four, could unexpectedly benefit you in the final seconds of a game.
The Pistons did that against the Bucks. By refusing to give up — essentially, by doing what they did after that 2-8 disaster in February — they have put themselves in position to go to the playoffs.
What adds to the impressiveness of the Pistons’ overall surge is how they handled themselves against the Hornets, a team which has also established a deserved reputation for its own flinty and resolute demeanor.
Monday, when the Pistons escaped the Bucks through sheer pluck and perseverance, the Hornets overcame a 28-7 first-quarter nightmare to reel in and ultimately defeat the San Antonio Spurs. Charlotte limited the Spurs to 60 points over the final three quarters. Steve Clifford’s team is known for making opponents earn every last bucket on defense.
The Pistons — who had been whacked twice by Charlotte earlier in the season, by 15 and 20 points — had to stare down this difficult opponent, one which is virtually assured of a playoff spot in the East.
Friday, Detroit merely hung 72 on Charlotte in the first half and built a 20-point lead with just over four minutes left. Reserves allowed the lead to slip to five with 37 seconds left, but the outcome was never in doubt; the Pistons hit their foul shots to prevent the Hornets from getting a real sniff at a tie or a win.
Detroit faced a thorny opponent and defeated that opponent at its strongest point, not its weakest. The accomplishment must be followed up by more wins — the deed is obviously not done — but everything’s coming up Pistons right now.
The Pistons are coming up in the world, refusing to accept a lower-tier place in the NBA.