Pistons winning back fans with unexpected roll of victories
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) Detroit had just lost to Atlanta when a last-second 3-pointer missed the mark, but Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy noticed something unusual about the home crowd's reaction.
''There were people standing up and cheering guys and the whole thing,'' Van Gundy said. ''They want to see you go out and give a great, great effort every night, and I think watching us and watching us on TV, I think that's what people are seeing - the energy and the effort and the spirit of this group.''
The loss to the Hawks was Detroit's only defeat in its last 10 games, and although the Pistons remain well under .500, they're finally beginning to win back their fans, whose indifference had become one of the defining characteristics of this dreary period in the team's history.
As they near the halfway point of Van Gundy's first season at the helm, the Pistons may finally be shedding their reputation as frustrating underachievers. Lately, they've looked more like the type of hungry underdog Motown loves to embrace.
Detroit hasn't made the playoffs since 2009, and attendance fell off quickly after the team plunged into mediocrity. It was hard to pinpoint the worst moment of the last five seasons. There was the day in 2011 when seven players missed at least part of a team shootaround in Philadelphia, and only the remaining six played that night in a blowout loss. There was the 1-13 record in March of 2013.
Maurice Cheeks was fired last February, just 50 games into his first season as Detroit's coach. The Pistons went 8-24 the rest of the way.
This season didn't start any better under Van Gundy. The Pistons lost 13 in a row at one point and were 5-23 when they made the bold decision to waive pricey forward Josh Smith, who was filling up the stat sheet but shooting poorly - and who was such a focal point of the offense that it seemed hard for other players to flourish.
After cutting Smith, Detroit won seven games in a row, and the Pistons have won two straight since the loss to Atlanta. Detroit was two games out of the Eastern Conference's final playoff spot entering Tuesday, when the Pistons had a night off before a home game against New Orleans.
Point guard Brandon Jennings is averaging 20.3 points and 7.0 assists since Smith's departure. Less than two weeks before waiving Smith, the Pistons welcomed Jodie Meeks back from a back injury that had kept him out all season. Meeks was one of a few players added this offseason in an effort to boost Detroit's perimeter shooting.
Since Smith's exit, the Pistons have attempted 29.1 shots per game from 3-point range, and they've made them at a 38-percent clip. If Detroit is connecting from the perimeter, that gives talented big men Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe more room to operate.
''We started making our shots, we started shooting with more confidence, and we started to space the floor out for everybody,'' Drummond said. ''You've got to pick your poison, whether you want a 3, or you want to, you know, get dunked on.''
Detroit fans really took notice when the Pistons won at San Antonio and Dallas last week. With the Detroit area still reeling a bit from the Lions' playoff loss, the Pistons rallied from an 18-point deficit to beat the Spurs. At the end, Van Gundy was seen on live television exhorting his team to form a wall near the basket to prevent a last-second alley-oop - only he threw in some colorful language while making his point.
That clip became a hit on social media, and when the Pistons played the Hawks in their next home game, an announced crowd of 18,859 - Detroit's largest since the home opener - saw an exciting game that came down to the wire. The next night, Detroit beat Brooklyn, and the attendance was 19,301.
''They're getting into it. I think that's great, because I think that's what our fans deserve,'' Van Gundy said. ''We're not going to win every night, and we're still a really young team, but there's no reason we can't bring that energy and a fight to the game every night, and I think our fans are responding to that.''