This is an opinion piece by MLive.com columnist David Mayo.
AUBURN HILLS — Stan Van Gundy will not say the best is yet to come. The Detroit Pistons still are eighth in the Eastern Conference, still in precisely the spot that would earn them a first-round playoff bounce by defending champion Cleveland. They are two games from sixth place, but also two games from being out of the playoffs.
It is not too early to emphasize these matters, however, and with 22 games remaining, the Pistons can take some comfort in that Van Gundy has been here before and his teams almost always are better late than early.
That has been the highly accomplished coach’s history, and with the Pistons rescuing another game Tuesday after trailing by 14 points in a 120-113, overtime win over Portland, they have navigated the tricky periods before and after the All-Star breaks without too many breakdowns, thanks to two major comebacks for overtime wins in the last week.
There have been subtle changes with this team in recent weeks.
Defense has improved. Tuesday broke a streak of eight consecutive games that the Pistons did not allow 105 points in regulation.
Van Gundy has been more willing to toy with his crunch-time rotations at point guard, a major departure from when Reggie Jackson was considered one of the NBA’s premier closers last year. Ish Smith finished it out against the Trail Blazers, as has been the case with greater frequency lately, and his defense was vital.
Marcus Morris’ career night leads win
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope also has developed into a reliable closer, and with the Pistons leading 109-107, they went to him again in the final seconds of regulation. He appeared to get hacked by C.J. McCollum, didn’t get the call, but did gripe loudly enough to get a horribly timed technical with 10.8 seconds left, saved only by Damian Lillard’s missed free throw.
The Pistons’ season to date falls into two segments, the one before Jan. 15, when 11 of their 24 losses were by at least 14 points; and the one since then, when they are 11-7 with only one loss by as many as 14 points.
A trademark of the Van Gundy era in Detroit is that the team typically does not give up on major deficits. This year’s team did so with greater regularity in the first half of the season.
That has not been the case in the last few weeks, and particularly so during the Pistons’ last four wins, three of which rank among their best of the season, from 16 points behind in the fourth quarter at Toronto, from 18 points behind in an overtime win vs. Charlotte, then Tuesday’s win.
“We’re certainly fighting hard,” Van Gundy said. “We’re fighting hard, and I have a lot of respect for that. That, we’re doing. We’re not getting consistent play throughout the course of games, and we’d like to improve that, but our fight, our heart, has been very consistent.”
The Pistons are 11-7 in their last 18 games and now the calendar flips to March, when Van Gundy historically has begun to do his best work.
Van Gundy’s 476-327 regular-season career record includes a discernible division which takes effect right now. He is 342-251 (.577) in games played October through February. In March and April, his record is 134-76 (.638).
These Pistons had plenty of problems. Jackson missing the first quarter of the season after a knee procedure was the most obvious, but Stanley Johnson’s early struggles, Jon Leuer’s absence with injury, moving Leuer into the starting lineup for Tobias Harris, then Jackson’s reacclimation all changed how the Pistons play, and in what groups. They have overcome most of it. Some remains a work in progress.
The points of emphasis, drilled since training camp, and now through 60 games, get honed to intuition and muscle memory over time. Van Gundy never has been big on gambling in passing lanes, but he constantly stresses active hands defensively. The Pistons allowed a big field-goal percentage against Portland, 52.4, but had eight more steals, 16 fewer turnovers and 20 more field-goal attempts. Active hands created extra shots and fast-break opportunities.
That is a formula for long-term success, unlike repeatedly facing the double-digit deficits the Pistons regularly have overcome recently.
You might recall this also is just about the time the Pistons finally put it together last year during a 16-9 finishing stretch which broke the six-year playoff drought.
Last year’s finishing flurry happened after the Pistons made the move to trade for Harris. They did not have any such personnel shakeup at the trade deadline this year, but they also were not as open to a big overhaul. A season of lessons learned, aided by good health, has pushed this team to greater efficiency than it has exhibited most of the season.
The Pistons remain only a 29-31 team, good enough for the last playoff spot in the weaker Eastern Conference if the season ended today, so there is improvement to make and no assurances to be found.
Still, their defense is improved, they have identified more players capable of finishing out close games, Marcus Morris just had perhaps his best game as a Piston, Andre Drummond remains one of the two most prolific rebounders in the sport.
Their best days should be ahead, even if the coach who is a very big reason for it won’t say as much.