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The Pistons Are Really Trying To Make Me Fall For This Again

Photo: Carlos Osorio (AP)

Remember when the Detroit Pistons waived Josh Smith in December of 2014, suddenly rattled off seven straight wins, and went 12-3 over the next 15 games? Then they finished the season in 12th place in the East.

Remember when the Pistons made the playoffs in 2016, for the first time in seven years, and everyone was so hype that even Stanley Johnson was trying to trash-talk LeBron? Then they were swept and haven’t been back since.

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Remember when the Pistons made a desperate trade for Blake Griffin last season, and won their next four games to get to 27-26? Then they ended the regular season four games back of the eighth-place Wizards.

Good, we’re on the same page. So you’ll forgive me, then, if my reaction to Wednesday’s 131-114 win over the Timberwolves—Detroit’s 10th win in the last 12 games—to go to a 32-31 season record isn’t one of optimism and joy, but existential dread. I have seen a decade’s worth of glimmers of hope, followed by sharp plummets back below .500, and there’s no way this recent hot stretch is anything more than a setup to get me punched in the gut again. Sorry, I am absolutely not buying it!

However ... for the sake of argument, let’s pretend for a moment that this team won’t be a crushing disappointment. The 32-31 Pistons look okay. They’re currently holding down the six-seed in the East. The odds of them passing the fifth-place Celtics are slim, but they’ve made the most of a month-long stretch against some cruddy teams (the Hawks, Wizards, Cavs, and Knicks twice) to force their way back into the playoff picture. After losing to the Clippers on Feb. 1, they were 22-29, until improvements from the team’s secondary stars jump-started a turnaround.

The healthy version of Griffin, who’s in the midst of his best season in several years, is obviously the main component of Detroit’s success. With a usage up over 30 percent, Griffin leads the team in both points and assists for the season, and remains an incredibly consistent scorer ever since a blistering start to the year. But a couple of key guys who’ve underachieved for a long time, before Griffin even showed up, might be starting to come around. Over the past 12 games, big man Andre Drummond has led the team in scoring, averaging 21.6 points per game with an eFG% of .624, compared to .534 on the year as a whole. Up against Karl-Anthony Towns on Wednesday, Drummond scored 31, and he also showed some fire when encroached upon by Taj Gibson’s elbow.

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Even if Drummond was born into the wrong era of basketball for him, he has the tools to be an unstoppable force down low. At the age of 25, he’s playing smarter and more confidently than he ever has—and he’s also even hitting a few more free throws!

The other Pistons player who finally looks like he wants to be playing basketball in Detroit is point guard Reggie Jackson. Early in the season, Jackson felt redundant. With so much of the offense running through Griffin as the point-forward, Jackson’s role evolved into that of a catch-and-shoot guy. But as he slowly healed from an ankle injury last season, Jackson wasn’t enough of a threat from outside, hitting just 34.2 percent of his three-pointers from the beginning of the season until the end of January. Since then, however, Jackson’s been an inferno, hitting 48.5 percent of his threes, with an also-scalding Luke Kennard making 47.8 percent right alongside him.

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Add these positive developments to smaller blessings like the encouraging defensive play of rookie Bruce Brown, and the volume-scoring abilities of the recently signed Wayne Ellington, and the Pistons might be a tempting investment of your attention. After all, this isn’t Stan Van Gundy’s team anymore, but Dwane Casey’s. Maybe this foundation is a little more stable than those previous squads.

But don’t be fooled! The collapse is right around the corner. Any pretty-looking cluster of Pistons victories can’t be sustainable in the long run. Watch this team drop its next two against Chicago, fall apart on its five-game road trip in late March, and flop back down to ninth place. There’s no way that this hastily built basketball team with barely any visible fanbase is more than the latest flash in the pan.

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...Right?

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