Skipping a Step

Pistons find success on the road, but know they need to win at The Palace, too

Chauncey Billups
Billups and the Pistons are working toward rebuilding a home-court advantage at the Palace
Dan Lippitt (NBAE/Getty)
The Pistons went to bed sometime Thursday morning, weary from a crazy stretch of schedule, as the only NBA team with a winning road record and a losing home mark. They’ve won six of their last seven away from The Palace and they’re now putting one remarkable win atop the next.

Did you like Monday’s win at Indiana – the first home loss for the Pacers all season – in which the Pistons never trailed best? Or did you prefer Wednesday’s woolly comeback from 21 points down to edge Boston by a point? Or are you a traditionalist and still prefer the methodical takedown of the reigning NBA champion Miami Heat from earlier this month?

The flip side, of course, is that the Pistons have lost three of their last four at home, including the rematch with Miami, a 27-point shellacking at Minnesota’s hands and the spirit-bending overtime loss to Portland.

But lost, perhaps, in the 6-8 home record is the quality of the teams the Pistons have faced at The Palace. The eight home losses have come to teams with a current combined winning percentage of .633 (129-73), with Indiana (20-5), Oklahoma City (20-4), Portland (22-5) and Miami (19-6) sporting four of the league’s five best records.

Chauncey Billups’ enduring Palace memories are rooted in the days when road teams rarely left happy, so he’s at something of a loss in grasping the reality of Detroit’s home-road schism.

“I really don’t know how to explain that, other than I just think you’re supposed to win at home, so I think you kind of get a false sense of you can fall behind and know you’re going to get back in the game and know the crowd is going to push you through at home. I think we’ve done that, because we have these spells during the game where we just fall asleep and it ends up costing us late in games.”

In the steps that mark the progression of a team in flower – and that clearly defines the Pistons, with an average age of 23 among their starting lineup and 20-year-old Andre Drummond at the core of their future – the Pistons have omitted a step.

And it’s kind of the good news here.

Because teams usually announce their playoff candidacy by first establishing a home-court advantage. It’s their comfort zone. Their crowd is with them to help carry them through the lonely moments, as Mr. Big Shot suggested, when NBA games are won or lost. Those last-minute possessions and clutch free throws become paralyzing moments for young teams getting shouted down by intimidating road crowds.

But the Pistons have faced those demons and not had their knees buckle. Having passed a sufficient number of such tests, there’s no logical reason to expect success at home proportionate with league average for expectant playoff teams won’t follow soon enough.

The Palace once, and not so long ago, was considered as tough a place to steal a win as anywhere in the league, right up there with Utah and Dallas and Sacramento among home-court advantages. Now most point to places like Oklahoma City, Golden State and Indiana. Winning begats fan fanaticism, to coin a redundancy, which in turn begats more winning.

That’s a roundabout way of saying The Palace is due to give the Pistons a nice boost pretty soon. Fans have noticed the new-look Pistons, a more exciting product even if you ignore wins and losses, and they surely are noticing wins against the likes of the Heat and Pacers. Even in the glory days, the Pistons always fought for attention during the fall in a football-mad market, but football is all but over for the season.

“Winning helps,” Billups said. “The excitement about our team is different this year than it’s been the last few years, so that helps. Listening to some of the guys, they’re saying our crowds this year are already better than it’s been the last couple of years. It’s a process of rebuilding and winning and we’re making steps. But it just doesn’t happen overnight.”

When he first came to the Pistons, 11 years ago, the Pistons were on a similar trajectory to their current arc, recovering from the malaise of the Teal Era. He witnessed the transformation of the fan base from curious to rabid.

“We were a little further ahead when I first got here than we are right now, but I think that as far as our present state, we’re getting closer to winning everybody back over. I think that this is the best sports town in the world, so it’s not that the people aren’t Pistons fans any more. But a lot has changed. The economics has changed. The team has changed a little bit. If you’re going to ask a family of four or five to spend money on five tickets and refreshments and parking, you better be putting a good product on the court and winning. It better be worth it. And I think we’re getting to the point where we are worth it.”

The Pistons get a rare home back-to-back this weekend, Charlotte on Friday night and another potential contender, Houston, on Saturday. That will deposit them at the finish line of perhaps their most grueling schedule stretch all season, an endless string of four-in-five and three-in-four sequences over the past month.

The Pistons have played 21 games in the past 36 days. That’s way above the norm for an 82-game schedule stretched over 169 days. The Pistons have played 27 games in 50 days, or one every 1.8 days, compared to the season-long average of a game every 2.1 days. In other words, they’re due for a schedule break. And the wear and tear has been compounded by some peculiar back to backs: New Orleans after playing at home, Milwaukee after the win at Miami.

The load begins to lighten for them soon. They’ll get two unusual breaks of five days apiece within a few weeks of each other and Mo Cheeks can split that up between rest and recovery time and back-to-basics instruction. It’s a pretty fair foundation for building on the success, and the confidence that accompanies it, the recent spate of road wins represents.

They know they’ve caught the NBA’s attention with the wins over Miami and Indiana. They know the 21-point comeback at Boston will have folks talking. But the Pistons are well aware that no one will take them seriously until The Palace again becomes their fortress.

“It seems like we can get wins on the road more than at home,” Brandon Jennings said after he led the stirring comeback to beat the Celtics. “But if we want to be a good team, we’ve got to get home wins, too. You’ve definitely got to protect home.”