LOS ANGELES — The NBA is as deep as it’s been in a long time. That’s especially true for the Eastern Conference. Only three games separate the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls, tied for second in the standings, and the Toronto Raptors, in 12th.
As the Detroit Pistons approach their 20th game of the season this Sunday — they fell, 107-96, to the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday afternoon — it’s becoming clearer that there’s a substantial gap between them and the playoff contenders. Following the Pistons’ loss, 22 teams sat above or within one game of .500. The next tier was topped by the Indiana Pacers at 8-12. The Pistons, meanwhile, are 4-15.
The Pistons have played either a playoff or championship contender nearly every single game this season. Only three games — against the Houston Rockets on Nov. 10, the Sacramento Kings on Nov. 15 and the Pacers on Nov. 17 — have come against teams out of the playoff mix. The Pistons are 2-1 in those games.
When the NBA is this deep and you’re a rebuilding team, there won’t be many easy nights.
“You’ve got a group of young teams. You’ve got a group of playoff teams,” coach Dwane Casey said Friday. “It’s going to be nip-and-tuck the rest of the way.”
Friday marked the Pistons’ fourth straight loss, and the schedule won’t get easier soon. They face the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday, the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday then end their five-game road trip against the Phoenix Suns on Thursday.
There was a silver lining in their loss to the Clippers — their second half was much better. They outscored the Clippers by four points in the third quarter, and 11 in the fourth. Los Angeles led by 29 points midway through the third, but Detroit was able to whittle the deficit down to a espectable 11 points by the end.
“We played with some desperation,” Casey said. “To be a young team, that’s the attitude, the culture, the philosophy we’ve gotta have to start the game. We don’t have the luxury of being a young team and having trouble scoring to come in and not play desperate to start the game. That was the message at halftime. We just want competing at the level you need to compete to be a playoff team like the Clippers. And once we decide to do that, we did.”
“If we start the game off by playing desperate, it would’ve been a whole different ballgame,” said Isaiah Stewart, who grabbed 12 rebounds in his first game back from a two-game suspension.
The Pistons also received strong contributions from Cade Cunningham and Jerami Grant — both cold offensively since Tuesday’s loss against the Heat — in the final period. Cunningham scored eight of his 10 points in the fourth, knocking down two of his three shots and four of five free throws. Grant scored seven of his 20 points in the frame, making both shots and all three of free throws. Both players were a plus-11 in the fourth.
As a team, the Pistons shot 36.7% and 24.2% from 3. The Clippers were hot in the first half, but the Pistons were able to clamp down during the final 24 minutes, holding the Clips to 38.3% shooting and just 4-for-22 on 3-pointers in the second half.
Detroit has struggled with its shooting all season. The Pistons are last in 3-point percentage (29.3%). They’ve declined substantially from last season’s 35.1% clip, and losing Kelly Olynyk through the next month has certainly hurt them in that area. It has been one of the biggest issues this team has had to deal with.
They believe they will eventually shoot the ball better, as they have several above-average shooters not matching their career numbers so far. Regardless, Casey wants to see his team play with energy on defense.
“We just want competing at the level you need to compete to be a playoff team like the Clippers,” Casey said. “And once we decide to do that, we did. A lot of it is, I think it dictated the shooting, and it’s an age-old idea that when you’re missing shots, it takes your energy level down. You can’t let your bad shooting dictate your energy level on the defensive end, whether it’s loose balls, getting into shooters, closing out on shooters with, not hoping they miss, but to make them miss. All those little things that we did in the second half, we did not do in the first half.”
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