April 09, 2016

DETROIT (AP) After six seasons of virtual irrelevance, the Detroit Pistons are heading back to the playoffs.

And they certainly had to earn their spot.

''It's a little more satisfying because it's in a year where the East was a lot better,'' coach Stan Van Gundy said. ''The last few years, it would have taken 37 or 38 wins to get in. We had to get to 43 with two games to go still to get in.''

The Pistons clinched their first playoff berth since 2009 with a 112-99 win over Washington on Friday night. Now a dozen years removed from its most recent NBA title, Detroit is hoping this accomplishment will mark the end of a dreary stretch in which the organization changed coaches constantly and struggled to draw fans to the Palace.

Van Gundy was hired two offseasons ago as coach and team president. After going 32-50 last season, Detroit improved significantly, and the team will be rewarded with a chance to play under the playoff spotlight.

''It's huge for our organization,'' Van Gundy said. ''We've said all along that we've got four starters in there who have never been, and this is huge for them.''

The Pistons can be especially encouraged because of their young roster. Star center Andre Drummond is 22, and point guard Reggie Jackson turns 26 this month. This season, Detroit traded for 23-year-old Tobias Harris, whose presence down the stretch seemed to open up scoring opportunities for other players.

Other contributors include 23-year-old Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, 26-year-old Marcus Morris and 19-year-old rookie Stanley Johnson.

Jackson has at least some postseason experience, having played for Oklahoma City before being traded to the Pistons in 2015. This playoff chase felt different, though.

''I was the backup before, we were always clinching at around 60 games (with Oklahoma City) and we always knew that we would be there,'' Jackson said. ''Right now we're a young team, we're growing together, we have a nice mixture of players who are very young and some older veterans who have been here. We're just trying to figure this thing out.''

The key stretch for Detroit was a nine-game homestand that began in mid-March. The Pistons went 6-3, then went on the road and beat Chicago. It eventually became mathematically impossible for the Bulls or Wizards to pass Detroit.

The Pistons will surely be underdogs no matter whom they face in the first round. Detroit will be seeded either seventh or eighth in the Eastern Conference and go against either Cleveland or Toronto.

The Pistons are still a flawed team. They rely heavily on their rebounding and haven't always defended well enough for Van Gundy's liking. And then there's the issue of Drummond's 36 percent foul shooting, which has caused Van Gundy to take him out in the fourth quarter at times.

But all of those concerns can wait. The Pistons can feel good about what they've already accomplished, knowing they've earned a chance to experience postseason basketball at the Palace - with fans who have waited a while for the playoffs to return to the Detroit area.

''I've been around the game for a long time and picked a lot of people's brains,'' Harris said. ''The biggest thing is just to play as hard as you can every single night, and we have to be ready. The level of intensity picks up another notch going into playoff basketball, probably two or three notches, so we really need to be on our game.''

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The version clarifies that the Bulls and Wizards can't pass Detroit. Chicago can still make the playoffs.

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