DETROIT - For the first time in years, the Detroit Pistons entered April in the heart of the playoff race.
The Pistons currently hold the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference with five games to play. They can't catch the Indiana Pacers for the No. 5 spot, so the only possible scenarios are for the Pistons to finish sixth, seventh, eighth or out of the playoffs.
Here's how the standings look as of Wednesday morning:
- 6. Detroit Pistons
- 7. Brooklyn Nets (1/2 game behind)
- 8. Miami Heat (1 game behind)
- 9. Orlando Magic (1.5 games behind)
- 10. Charlotte Hornets (4 games behind)
Here's a look at the remaining schedules for each contending team:
- Wednesday: vs. Indiana Pacers (46-32)
- Friday: at Oklahoma City Thunder (45-33)
- Sunday: vs. Charlotte Hornets (35-42)
- Tuesday: vs. Memphis Grizzlies (31-46)
- April 10: at New York Knicks (15-62)
- Wednesday: vs. Toronto Raptors (55-23)
- Saturday: at Milwaukee Bucks (58-20)
- Sunday: at Indiana Pacers (46-32)
- April 10: vs. Miami Heat (38-39)
- Wednesday: vs. Boston Celtics (46-32)
- Friday: at Minnesota Timberwolves (34-43)
- Sunday: at Toronto Raptors (55-23)
- Tuesday: vs. Philadelphia 76ers (49-28)
- April 10: Brooklyn Nets (39-39)
- Wednesday: vs. New York Knicks (15-62)
- Friday: vs. Atlanta Hawks (28-50)
- Sunday: at Boston Celtics (46-32)
- April 10: at Charlotte Hornets (35-42)
- Wednesday: at New Orleans Pelicans (32-46)
- Friday: vs. Toronto Raptors (55-23)
- Sunday: at Detroit Pistons (39-38)
- Tuesday: at Cleveland Cavaliers (19-59)
- April 10: vs. Orlando Magic (38-40)
Fortunately for the Pistons, the team breathing down their necks has the toughest remaining schedule of the group.
Here are the average opponents' records for the five contenders:
- Nets: 49-29
- Heat: 46-33
- Hornets: 37-41
- Pistons: 34-43
- Magic: 31-47
The Nets have four games remaining and three are likely losses. The Bucks and Raptors are the top two teams in the East, and the Pacers are extremely difficult to beat on the road. Even the final game against the Heat could be tricky if both teams are vying for a playoff spot.
Miami is the only other team with a daunting final stretch. The Heat play three of the top four teams in the East and the aforementioned trip to New Jersey with potential playoff implications on the line.
The Hornets only have one surefire playoff team on their remaining schedule, and it will come at home. That means individually, Charlotte has a legitimate chance to win each game.
Unfortunately, they're currently at the bottom of these standings and need to win at least four of five games to have a realistic chance to catch the Pistons. New Orleans and Cleveland should be fairly easy wins, even on the road, and the Hornets have absolutely owned the Pistons in recent years (3-0 this season and 2-1 last season).
The Hornets' home game against the Magic could make or break both teams' chances.
Detroit has a manageable schedule down the stretch, but the next three games should really tell the story. Detroit finishes the season against Memphis and New York, which should be victories for a team fighting for its playoff life.
Wednesday is a pivotal game for the Pistons because the Pacers have been sliding recently but still hold the No. 5 spot in the East. The road game against the Thunder will likely be a loss, but the game against the Hornets is another tossup.
If the Pistons can finish 3-2, they would have a 42-40 record, meaning the Nets would have to go 3-1 or the Heat would have to go 4-1 against much tougher schedules to force a tie. Orlando and Charlotte wouldn't be able to catch the Pistons in that scenario.
Orlando has the easiest remaining schedule, but back-to-back road games against Boston and Charlotte to finish the season could be enough to eliminate the Magic.
The No. 1 tiebreaker for playoff positioning is head-to-head results, and that leaves the Pistons in a tough spot.
Detroit lost two of three against Brooklyn, split with Miami and lost three times against Charlotte. The only team the Pistons beat head-to-head was Orlando.
If the Pistons and Heat finish tied, however, the Pistons will get the edge because of conference winning percentage. A three-team tie could be a problem for the Pistons because the Heat have seven wins against this group and the Pistons have six. It would depend on which team was involved in the tie.
Here's a look at the head-to-head records for the Pistons against all four teams.
- 1-2 vs. Brooklyn
- 2-2 vs. Miami
- 3-1 vs. Orlando
- 0-3 vs. Charlotte
The Pistons would hold the tiebreaker over Orlando and Miami, as long as it's a two-team tie. They would lose the tiebreaker to Brooklyn and Charlotte.
If the Pistons somehow finish 5-0, they're guaranteed to earn the No. 6 seed. That seems highly unlikely, with a road trip to Oklahoma City and home games against Indiana and Charlotte.
The Pistons are also basically guaranteed to have the No. 6 seed if they finish 4-1. Only the Nets and Heat would be able to tie the Pistons in that scenario, and they would have to go undefeated. That would include the Nets beating Toronto, Milwaukee and Indiana or the Heat beating Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia and Brooklyn.
Even a 3-2 record bodes well for the Pistons in their quest to earn the No. 6 seed. The Magic and Hornets couldn't catch the Pistons -- the Magic because of the head-to-head tiebreaker.
The only way the Pistons could fall out of the No. 6 seed if they go 3-2 is if the Nets go 4-0 or 3-1 against their difficult schedule. Due to tiebreakers, the Heat could only catch the Pistons in this scenario by going 5-0 or by going 4-1 and having the Nets finish 3-1 with their only loss to the Heat.
At 2-3, the Pistons would open the door to disaster because the Nets and Heat could both lose multiple games and pass the Pistons, and the Magic would also be in play thanks to a manageable schedule.
The Pistons would almost certainly fall to No. 8 or out of the postseason if they finish 1-4, and 0-5 would be a playoff death sentence.
It seems likely the Pistons will beat Memphis at home and New York -- the worst team in the NBA -- on the road. The road game against the Thunder will probably be a loss.
That leaves home games against Indiana and Charlotte as the possible swing games for the Pistons in terms of playoff positioning.
It would take a complete collapse for the Pistons to fall out of the top eight in the East, but it's certainly possible they could get the No. 7 or No. 8 seed. The next week will be the most important stretch of basketball for the Pistons since 2016.
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