The Detroit Pistons' remarkable resurgence continued with a 114-111 win on the road over the Toronto Raptors, and a playoff dream that seemed dead just a few weeks ago is now very much alive.
After starting the season 5-23, the Pistons are a mere two games back of the No. 8 spot in the Eastern Conference.
Thanks to 34 points and 10 assists from Brandon Jennings, Detroit leaped out of a first-half hole dug principally by Raptors big man Jonas Valanciunas (14 points and six rebounds in the first quarter alone), who was utterly dominant in the early going.
The first 24 minutes concluded with Detroit trailing by a dozen points.
Jennings led the Pistons back, though, stroking confident jumpers and getting to his spots against a Raptors defense that has struggled immensely of late to contain penetration. Watching Jennings—maligned over the years for his poor shot selection and laissez-faire approach to defense—head the charge was surreal.
Detroit trimmed 11 points off of its deficit in the third quarter alone, and then huge triples from Jennings, Jonas Jerebko and Jodie Meeks swung the game in its favor down the stretch.
Better still, the Pistons limited Toronto without using Andre Drummond in crunch time. Stan Van Gundy's one-in, four-out rotation favored Greg Monroe in this one, whose 22 points and 10 rebounds were key. Drummond, though benched late because of his free-throw issues, still finished with 10 points and a game-high 14 rebounds.
Despite a monster effort from Valanciunas, who made 14-of-15 shots and registered a career-high 31 points, plus solid scoring numbers overall, the Raptors just couldn't keep up.
The Pistons have won nine of their last 10 games, with the only slip-up coming against the Atlanta Hawks, who are beating everybody lately. No shame there.
Without qualification, Detroit is playing the second-best basketball of anyone in the East.
Toronto hasn't been all that tough lately, especially on defense. And if you're skeptical of Detroit's rise, you could point to the Raptors losing five of their last six to say the Pistons have been fattening up on vulnerable teams. But Toronto is still a power team in the East (for whatever that's worth)—25-12 overall and 15-4 at home coming in.
Besides, the win over the Raps was hardly Detroit's first statement.
It's been knocking off strong competition for a while, with the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs joining the list of victims just last week.
Maybe Jennings will fall back to Earth. He's a sub-40-percent shooter for his career, and it's hard to see him sustaining the 47-percent pace he's been on over the last 10 games. Then again, D.J. Augustin poured in 17 fourth-quarter points in the win over Dallas on Jan. 7, so it's not like the Pistons will come apart when Jennings becomes human again.
Van Gundy has his rotation figured out now. He plays one big and spreads the floor with shooters. The ball's moving and players are putting forth effort on both ends.
This. Is. Sustainable.
It's time to face it: We're running out of "yeah, but" caveats for the Pistons. The win in Toronto is just the latest proof. And though no team has ever made the playoffs after starting with a 5-23 record, per Elias (via ESPN) citing the past as a predictor of Detroit's future isn't a great idea.
There's little doubt the Pistons will make up the measly two games necessary to grab the bottom rung of the playoff ladder. The only real question is: How high can they climb?
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The Pelicans Prefer the Hard Way
A five-game road trip through the East is supposed to be a boon for a team like the New Orleans Pelicans, an outfit that has hovered around .500 in the brutal West all season. But a 108-100 loss to a Boston Celtics team continually selling off its veterans for spare parts was not an ideal beginning.
In fact, it might have been foreseeable. New Orleans was 0-6 on the road against the East coming into this one.
Anthony Davis was his reliably excellent self, scoring 34 points and grabbing nine rebounds. But only Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans joined him in double figures.
The Celtics had six players score at least 10 points, led by Jared Sullinger's 27.
New Orleans' East excursion won't get easier from here. Detroit looms on Jan. 14, and point guard Jrue Holiday missed the entire second half against Boston with right ankle inflammation.
KG Headed Out Early
The Brooklyn Nets don't make shots, but Kevin Garnett proved he was happy to take a few in a 113-99 loss to the Houston Rockets.
Before the game, head coach Lionel Hollins opined on his slumping squad's lack of a label, via Rod Boone of Newsday:
Perhaps seeking to establish a new identity, Garnett got into a testy first-quarter exchange with Dwight Howard:
After plenty of jawing and shoving, Howard was assessed a technical foul. For his trouble, KG earned a pair of techs, which resulted in an ejection. He earned it, and the early exit will have its benefits, per Brian Mahoney of The Associated Press:
Unfortunately for the Nets, Garnett's extracurriculars were the high point of the game. Houston got 30 points from James Harden (offsetting a career-high 24 from Mason Plumlee in what turned out to be a walkover win.
Brooklyn will need to show some fight (figurative, not literal) if it wants to hang on to its loosening grasp on a playoff spot.
Bulls Blink, Vucevic Violates
Energy has been an issue for the Chicago Bulls of late. Lost in the majesty of Pau Gasol's 46-point outburst on Saturday was the fact his teammates didn't muster much support. Pau's brilliance was necessary to prop up a squad that has, maddeningly, played to the level of its competition for weeks.
In a 121-114 home loss to the Orlando Magic, the Bulls played below the level of some pretty lowly competition.
Head coach Tom Thibodeau unloaded on his team afterward, per K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:
Gasol was excellent again, scoring 28 points and snatching 14 boards on 10-of-16 shooting, but Magic center Nikola Vucevic was even better. He piled up 33 points, 11 rebounds and four assists—a nice continuation from the 34 points and 16 rebounds he tallied against the Portland Trail Blazers on Jan. 9.
And let's not forget the highlight of the night:
Victor Oladipo also scored 33, and his late-game flurry of points around the rim kept the Bulls at bay.
There's no reason to panic; the Bulls are deep, healthy and showing no signs of long-term issues. Sooner or later, though, they'll have to take care of business against teams they should beat.
Mr. Ginobili Goes to Washington
An off night allowed the San Antonio Spurs to feel like champs, as Manu Ginobili and friends paid a visit to the White House—as is their right as reigning title-winners.
Here's hoping this was actually the quiet kickoff of Gregg Popovich's 2016 campaign.
Pop in '16: Three-word solutions for all of America's problems.
Carmelo Anthony Has Strange Priorities
In a report from Ian Begley of ESPN.com, Carmelo Anthony explained surgery may be the only way to address his troublesome left knee: "I'm pretty sure at some point that's going to be my only option. But until that time I can't sit out...I feel like if I can go out there and play some more and continue to play, then I'm going to do that."
The New York Knicks are 5-35. They've lost 15 straight and have absolutely no chance to compete for a playoff spot this year. Nor do they have a desire to do so—as their exchange of Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith for nothing indicates.
If they can help it, the Knicks won't stop there, either. According to Begley and Marc Stein of ESPN.com, New York is looking to move Andrea Bargnani and Jose Calderon as well. Don't expect teams to line up for those two, though.
So what's Anthony waiting for? Why not go under the knife now and leave as much time to rehab as possible ahead of a 2015-16 season that might actually matter?
In a way, 'Melo's stated desire to postpone the inevitable is admirable. But given where the Knicks are in the standings and how they'd be best served to stay there, Anthony's hesitation makes no sense.