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Surging Pistons Here to Stay in Tight Race Out East and Tuesday NBA Takeaways

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistDecember 23, 2015

Dec 22, 2015; Miami, FL, USA; Detroit Pistons guard Reggie Jackson (1) dribbles the ball against the Miami Heat during the first half at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

If it wasn't abundantly apparent before a 93-92 victory over the Miami Heat, it was crystal-clear afterward: The Detroit Pistons are coming for the rest of the Eastern Conference.

This is not a development many foresaw, even with Detroit's noticeably upgraded roster. And the Pistons certainly didn't look the part of a second-tier NBA contender for much of Tuesday's affair at American Airlines Arena.

They turned the ball over nine times in the first quarter as the Heat jumped out to a 16-point lead while shooting better than 57 percent from the floor. After staging a second-quarter comeback, during which Detroit outscored Miami by 18 points to take a two-point edge into halftime, the Pistons again flirted with disaster in a turnover-fraught third quarter.

Unforced mistakes allowed the Heat to rattle off a 9-0 run late in the third and regain the lead heading into the fourth. If not for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope's seven-point, one-assist expo and Steve Blake's timely three-point shooting in that final frame, the Pistons wouldn't have erased a recurring deficit in time to squeak out a victory against one of the East's foremost authorities.

We can't forget the bench, either. It was huge, outpacing Miami's second unit by 22 points, per Keith Langlois of Pistons.com:

Keith Langlois @Keith_Langlois

Bosh misses at the buzzer. Pistons hang on to win. Bench with 36 points, hit 11 of 17 from 3. Jackson 18, KCP, Johnson 14 each

Even on the last possession, with Miami trailing by one and in position to win the game inside two seconds to play, Detroit couldn't muster an iota of certainty.

Caldwell-Pope tripped over his own feet, and Anthony Tolliver lost Chris Bosh, who sprang free for a wide-open, potentially game-winning shot that was just off the mark:

The Pistons, in no uncertain terms, were lucky. And head coach Stan Van Gundy didn't shy away from admitting as much, per the Miami Herald's Ethan J. Skolnick:

Ethan J. Skolnick @EthanJSkolnick

Stan Van Gundy: "They missed great shots. They did. Two Hall of Famers missed shots they make more than 50% of the time in their careers."

Lucky or not, Detroit should make no apologies. These are the types of contests any Eastern Conference contender has to win.

Two games separate the second-seeded Toronto Raptors from the 10th-place Boston Celtics. There is no room for error.

Had Detroit lost, it would have been a mere half-game away from falling out of the playoff picture. Even now, after winning nine of their last 12, the Pistons are still only one game outside lottery territory.

Anything can happen between now and the playoffs, and it will take a concerted effort for Detroit to build upon this pencil-thin cushion. But the Pistons, for the first time in nearly a decade, have the luxury of faith—the belief that they have what it takes to keep climbing the Eastern Conference ladder.

Andre Drummond is a virtual lock to earn his first All-Star appearance. He had an off night in Miami, shooting just 4-of-12 from the field but still managed to record his 25th double-double of the season. He has more of those than Blake Griffin and Kevin Love combined. 

Reggie Jackson is not-so-quietly becoming a patented star. Like Drummond, he was quiet compared to previous outings. But when low-key performances consist of scoring 18 points on 50 percent shooting, you're doing something right.

The Pistons are making some noise in the East, and that might not change.
The Pistons are making some noise in the East, and that might not change.Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

And Jackson doesn't need to be great for the Pistons to win this kind of game. He just needs to be on the floor. The mere threat of his incisive drives creates space for everyone, and leading into Tuesday night, Detroit was scoring at the clip of a top-five offense with him in the lineup.

That Jackson can have such a profound impact on an otherwise below-average point-piling machine is important. The Pistons own a top-10 defense and are showing they can survive every class of competition—slog, shootout, whatever.

This fluid identity has them hanging with everyone else in the East. And "everyone" means everyone, as Langlois noted:

Keith Langlois @Keith_Langlois

Pertinent fact: Pistons 7-1 vs. teams currently in EC playoff field: 2-0 vs. CHI, MIA; 1-0 vs. CLE, ATL; 1-1 vs. IND. 3-0 on road vs. field

One less big-time bucket against Miami, and we're talking about a different game. If Bosh and Dwyane Wade combined to shooter better than 3-of-12 in the fourth quarter, and 17-of-42 overall, we're reflecting upon an alternate ending.

But that's not what we're talking about or left to harp on. The Pistons did just enough, for just long enough, to grind out a third straight victory against a legitimate conference foe.

On Friday night, they beat the Chicago Bulls 147-144 in quadruple overtime. On Wednesday night, they beat the Celtics 119-116.

Three wins, decided by a total of seven points, all guiding us toward the same unmistakable, if surprising, conclusion: The Pistons are here. They're for real.

And they aren't going anywhere.

The Mavericks Are Testing Rick Carlisle's Patience

Rick Carlisle is not even sort of happy with his team.
Rick Carlisle is not even sort of happy with his team.LM Otero/Associated Press

There were times during the Dallas Mavericks' 103-99 loss to the Toronto Raptors when you thought they might actually win—when, against all reason, you toyed with the idea that they could successfully overcome a 18-point deficit and leave Air Canada Centre with an undeserved victory.

Well, despite a late surge, the Mavericks lost. They shot 2-of-13 from beyond the arc in the first half and let the Raptors build an enormous lead. 

While they went down swinging, shooting better than 54 percent in the second half, head coach Rick Carlisle was none too pleased with his team's effort, per ESPNDallas.com's Tim MacMahon:

Tim MacMahon @espn_macmahon

Rick Carlisle on "embarrassing" first half: "If it's gonna be like that, these guys won't be Mavericks very long. I can promise you that."

Carlisle was clearly kidding. Just ask Rajon Ron—right, bad example.

Nevertheless, Dallas' players, who MacMahon said heard an earful from Carlisle, aren't prepping for an impromptu roster teardown following one less than stellar display against a borderline elite Raptors unit:

Tim MacMahon @espn_macmahon

I didn't get the vibe that many guys in the locker room took Rick Carlisle's threat too seriously. He said same thing in locker room.

About those Raptors...they were good. 

Kyle Lowry didn't do much in the second half, finding nylon on just two of his seven shots, but he finished three assists short of a triple-double. And for what it's worth, he didn't need to do much—or anything—in the second half.

DeMar DeRozan carried Toronto's troops with 28 points and four assists. He was so impressive; we're going to let his seven turnovers slide.

Luis Scola pump-faked his way to 15 points and nine rebounds, and Cory Joseph turned in another performance worthy of the starting point guard he is not. Ten of his 12 points came in the fourth quarter, and he routinely picked apart J.J. Barea and Raymond Felton.

The takeaway: Toronto is good, and Dallas needs to be better.

Vintage Kobe Might Be Here to Stay

Kobe is playing like Kobe again.
Kobe is playing like Kobe again.Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

What happens when a Denver Nuggets team already without Wilson Chandler is missing Danilo Gallinari, Emmanuel Mudiay and Jusuf Nurkic?

The Los Angeles Lakers win.

And Kobe Bryant shines.

Bryant finished with 31 points and five assists on a tidy 10-of-22 shooting in the Lakers' 111-107 road victory. He has now put together a quality stretch of vintage-Kobe showcases for the first time all season, as Yahoo Sports' Michael Lee put it:

Michael Lee @MrMichaelLee

It's taken him a little time to figure things out but Kobe Bryant appears to have found his legs & a rhythm. Has four straight 20-pt games

No, this is not a drill. And no, Bryant isn't only turning back the clock on offense. The 37-year-old has some defense left in him, per Lakers.com's Mike Trudell:

Mike Trudell @LakersReporter

Kobe has also been guarding Will Barton in the 2nd half, and Barton has only 2 points. He had 23 in the 1st half.

Worry not, Nuggets fans. This loss wasn't all bad.

Will Barton is a legit superhero. He finished with 25 points, including 23 in the first half before old-school Bryant chased him around.

He was so unstoppable early on that Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News felt it was his duty to preemptively burst any wishful Lakers fans' bubble:

Mark Medina @MarkG_Medina

Before any Lakers fan asks, Will Barton isn't a free agent next summer.

Also, Nikola Jokic is, like, really good. He went for 15 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in what was the latest reminder that he's what it would be like if Gallinari had All-Defensive Team potential.

As far as losses go, Nuggets head coach Mike Malone can accept this one sans any Carlisle-like tirade. 

Sixers Still Sire Sadz

Breaking: The Sixers still aren't winning games.
Breaking: The Sixers still aren't winning games.Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Most statistics that matter paint the Memphis Grizzlies as overrated—a team inferior to its above-.500 record (16-14) and middle-of-the-pack Western Conference standing. Leading into Tuesday night, they seemed like a natural candidate to gift-wrap the Philadelphia 76ers their second win of the season.

But, as it turns out, the Grizzlies weren't in a gift-giving mood and instead decided to exit Wells Fargo Center with a 104-90 victory. Philadelphia, in turn, made the wrong kind of NBA history, according to ESPN Stats & Info:

ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo

Grizzlies beat the 76ers 104-90. The 76ers become the first team in NBA history to start a regular season 1-29.

Although they hung tight through the first half and shot better than 50 percent in the second half, the Sixers were their usual misguided, sloppy selves. They could barely buy a bucket from long distance (7-of-23), and no one outside of Tony Wroten Jr. generated dribble penetration.

Philadelphia recorded more turnovers (26) than assists (19). It's the 13th time this season the team has posted more hiccups than dimes. The San Antonio Spurs, by comparison, have registered more cough-ups than assists 17 times...since Kawhi Leonard entered the NBA.

Oh, and the Grizzlies killed the Sixers in transition, outscoring them 21-11 on the run.

I repeat: The Grizzlies, who rank in the bottom 10 for pace and average just over 12 fast-break points per game, according to Team Rankings, won the transition battle 21-11. 

Not that it was all bad for the Sixers. They started the game hot by their standards, and even as it slipped away, they showed signs of the defensive cohesion that helped ease the pain of last year's loss-loaded extravaganza, as Bleacher Report's Alec Nathan pointed out:

Alec Nathan @AlecBNathan

Been surprisingly pleased with some of the Sixers’ defensive rotations lately. Not always sharp, but they’re getting there bit by bit.

Almost-a-7-footer Jahlil Okafor also put actually-a-7-footer Marc Gasol in a blender:

Silver linings, you guys.

Still, the Sixers must do something about their league-worst offense. Their defense can hold its own for protracted periods of time, but the offense is lost.

Entering Tuesday night, the Sixers were scoring 5.7 points less per 100 possessions than the Association's second-cruddiest attack—the same gap that separates the fourth-ranked Cleveland Cavaliers from the 25th-ranked Milwaukee Bucks.

Here's to new Sixers associate head coach Mike D'Antoni working miracles.

Poor Joffrey Lauvergne

Bleacher Report @BleacherReport

Larry Nance Jr. MY GOODNESS! 😳 https://t.co/ciefKdQnpZ

In the event Larry Nance Jr. wishes to send an apology to Joffrey Lauvergne, Denver's sophomore can be reached at WhyYouGottaBeSoRudeLarry@ForRealThough.SadFace.

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com and are accurate leading into games on Dec. 22 unless otherwise noted.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danfavale.

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