Detroit Pistons still struggling to find a groove

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) In their final game before an unusual four-day break in their schedule, all the Detroit Pistons needed to do was win at home against a struggling Sacramento team.

A victory would have given the Pistons their first four-game winning streak of the season and sent them into the layoff on a positive note. Instead, Detroit blew an early 11-point lead and lost 109-104 on Monday night.

''They just seemed like they wanted it more,'' forward Marcus Morris said.

The Pistons are having a hard time finding a groove in 2016-17. The loss dropped Detroit to 21-25, and the Pistons remain caught up in a logjam of mediocrity in the middle of the Eastern Conference. Heading into Tuesday night, there were six teams in the East between 23-22 and 20-26, all scrambling for the last few playoff spots. Detroit was 1 + games behind the No. 8 slot it occupied last season, when the Pistons made the postseason for the first time since 2009.

There's still plenty of time for the Pistons to climb in the standings, but for a franchise that's trying to build excitement in advance of its move from Auburn Hills to downtown Detroit next season, missing the playoffs would obviously be a step back.

''We play 82 games. They're all crucial,'' coach Stan Van Gundy said recently. ''You've got to get wins - and enough of them, or as many of them as you can. I don't think one stretch stands out from another stretch.''

Van Gundy was making the claim that at this point in the season, no one game or set of games is necessarily more important than any other. As if to prove his point, the Pistons beat conference rival Washington at the buzzer on Saturday night for their third straight win, then squandered a good chance when they lost to Sacramento .

Detroit has been building around center Andre Drummond and point guard Reggie Jackson. The Pistons were without Jackson for the first 21 games of the season because of his knee problems, but they actually went 11-10 without him. About a week after his return, Detroit went into a tailspin, dropping eight of their final 10 games in December.

Jackson and Drummond are both scoring less this season. Jackson's average has dipped from 18.8 points a game to 16.9, and Drummond's has fallen from 16.2 to 14.2. The Pistons are averaging only 9.9 offensive rebounds, down from 12.5 a season ago. The drop in second-chance points has been similar, from 14.9 a game (second-most in the league last season) to 12.7.

Detroit's schedule has been grueling at times. The Pistons have played 24 road games - nobody in the East has had more. Their four-day layoff this week should offer a chance to rest and refocus, but it's an odd break.

''I don't know why our schedule's the way it is, but it's sort of messed up,'' Van Gundy said.

The Pistons have looked better in January. They salvaged a 2-3 record on a tough road trip out west, and their first game back home last week was a 118-95 rout of Atlanta in which Detroit outscored the Hawks 42-18 in the first quarter. The Pistons followed that up by beating the Wizards 113-112 on a buzzer-beating tip-in by Morris. It was an emotional victory over a Washington team that has been playing well.

Then, an eminently winnable game against Sacramento slipped away. The Kings have won only two of their last 10 games, and both were against the Pistons.

''We've got to come out and we've got to approach every game the same way,'' Morris said. ''For some reason, against Sacramento, I don't know what it is, our toughness is not there. ... We just beat a couple good teams that are on good runs, so we're capable. The good teams in the league, they take care of business.''

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