Into the Fire

Pistons two-game set with Charlotte could shape playoff hopes

Josh Smith
The Pistons return from All-Star break to consecutive games against the Charlotte Bobcats.
Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)
The Pistons lost a chance to jump ahead of Charlotte and into the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot when they got outscored 27-13 in the final eight minutes and lost by four points to Cleveland in their final game before the All-Star break.

It won’t take them long to get another chance.

When the Pistons reconvene on Monday after the four-day break for practice, it shouldn’t take John Loyer long to rivet their attention. They host the Bobcats at The Palace on Tuesday, then get on Roundball One and fly to Charlotte for the return match 24 hours later.

And those two games, when April 16 rolls around and the curtain drops on the NBA regular season, could well determine the identity of the East’s No. 8 playoff seed.

The Pistons can ill afford to get swept by the Bobcats. They’d do well, in fact, to sweep the two-game set. They’ll need to do so if Detroit and Charlotte wind up tied for the eighth seed. That’s because Charlotte leads the season series 1-0 and the teams won’t face each other again after Wednesday. The Bobcats are one of four Eastern Conference teams this season that the Pistons play three times instead of four.

Of all the games like Wednesday’s – games the Pistons have led by double digits in the second half and lost, the defining characteristic of their 22-30 record to date – the one that could wind up costing them the most was their Dec. 20 loss to the Bobcats. They led that game by 20 points – 18 with a minute to play in the third quarter – but were outscored by an astounding 41-17 in the fourth quarter and lost 116-106.

“We’ve got this game marked on the calendar,” Andre Drummond said. “We gave that game away last game we played them. We’ve got to get prepared and try to beat these guys twice.”

Loyer wants to implement some changes on both ends of the court, he said, and he’ll use the All-Star break to zero in on a list of priorities, mindful that he can’t get too ambitious.

“It’s a fine line,” he said. “You can’t give them too much. They want to see change. They want some additions. They want some new things, but then again, you can’t get away from things we’ve done well. You want to keep getting better at what you’re doing and, along the way, add a few things.”

The Pistons have some glaring weaknesses on offense and some overwhelming strengths. They’re dead last in the league in 3-point shooting (.309) and free-throw shooting (.667), but first in points in the paint (51.9) and a close second to Phoenix in fast-break points (18.2). There might not be much room for improvement at the free-throw line, where Greg Monroe shoots below 65 percent, Josh Smith below 60 percent and Andre Drummond is hovering just above 40 percent.

But the Pistons, Loyer believes, can and should at least modestly improve their 3-point shooting. Even a modest improvement over Wednesday’s 4 of 23 performance – when one or two well-timed triples could have broken Cleveland’s spirit – can do wonders for a team with the overpowering inside presence the Pistons possess. It isn’t just about sitting back and hoping 3-pointers start falling, or even spending more time in individual shooting drills, either. It can come in scheming to produce cleaner looks for their more accurate perimeter shooters.

“As a group, we’ve got to shoot better threes,” Loyer said. “We’ve been a better corner-shooting three team and I think it’s something we’ve got to spend some time on. We’re never going to be a high-volume 3-point shooting team, but we’re better than what we are. … You hope a lot of those (attempts) aren’t one-pass shots. You hope they’re catch-swing shots or inside-out shots. Sometimes it’s how you get it or where you get it from that kind of helps whether you make it or miss it.”

On defense, the Pistons have less variance but at least as much room for improvement, probably more. They rank 25th in scoring defense (102.6), 29th in field-goal percentage defense (.466), 21st in 3-point defense (.368) and a more respectable 18th in defensive efficiency (1.036).

“I’m going to look at the whole picture,” Loyer said of his All-Star break plans. “I’m going to look at certain combinations when we have them in the game. Kind of break down our offense. I’m going to sit down and look at what we’re doing defensively. An area we need to improve on is our transition defense in spells. There are a lot of areas we’re going to look at.”

The quicker the Pistons adapt to Loyer’s tinkering – the more seamlessly they can bolster their weaknesses without compromising their strengths – the better given the weight their two-game miniseries with Charlotte carries.

“We need to bounce back with these two games against Charlotte,” Kyle Singler said after the stinging loss to Cleveland. “Those games are going to be big.”