Red-Letter Game

Pistons can’t afford to let opportunity to beat Nets, Bobcats slip away

Brandon Jennings
The Pistons take on the Nets at home Friday, Feb. 7, 2014.
Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)
That stuff about 82 games and all of them counting the same? Mo Cheeks is willing to put an asterisk next to certain games. The next opponent on the schedule gets one.

The Pistons host Brooklyn on Friday night and if they’re serious about making a run at the playoffs, beating the Nets is strongly advised. It’s not quite “must win” territory with 34 games remaining, but the Pistons only get so many chances to beat the teams they’ll need to leapfrog to crack the eight-team playoff field and Friday is one of their best.

So are those back-to-back games coming up in two weeks, just after the All-Star break, against Charlotte – home on a Tuesday night, at Charlotte 24 hours later. The Nets occupy the seventh spot, the Bobcats the eighth and the Pistons the ninth in the current Eastern Conference standings.

In essence, that means those games count double. The Pistons are four games down in the loss column to the Nets, who host injury-depleted San Antonio tonight – the Spurs won’t have either Tony Parker or Tim Duncan in addition to Kawhi Leonard – before coming to The Palace. Assuming a Nets win over the Spurs, the Pistons could be either three down or five down in the loss column depending on Friday’s result.

“It is (doubly important),” Cheeks said after Thursday’s practice, the day after a damaging loss at lottery-bound Orlando. “We just have to take care of the things we’re capable of taking care of – and that’s playing those teams, playing Brooklyn tomorrow and then playing Charlotte after the break. So when we play them, we’ve got to make sure they understand those are teams we need to beat in order to get ahead of them.”

Their chances at racking up those critical wins would be enhanced by better bench productivity than they get in Orlando when the Pistons got just 20 points – 14 from Rodney Stuckey – from their reserves. The significant contributing factor was swapping out bench mainstay Kyle Singler for rookie Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Cheeks making the switch after Caldwell-Pope had started the previous 40 consecutive games due to his concern for the success Arron Afflalo had enjoyed in previous meetings.

Cheeks reiterated Thursday that the position could vary based on matchups, but with 6-foot-8 All-Star Joe Johnson awaiting whoever starts at shooting guard for the Pistons on Friday it’s a good bet Singler hears Mason calling his name during pregame introductions.

“We’ll think about it a little more tonight,” Cheeks said, “but probably Kyle will start tomorrow.”

Singler, at 25 and with four years of college experience and a year abroad, has proven he can adapt to whatever role the Pistons hand him. The question Cheeks must address is whether Caldwell-Pope can be adjust to coming off the bench.

“You knew it wasn’t going to be easy for him after starting so many games to come off the bench,” Cheeks said. “It wasn’t going to be an easy transition for him right away. It’s day to day right now. KCP is a good kid and he’s a good player, so he will adjust to it, no matter what.”

Thursday’s practice was largely devoted to video tape review, which probably caused some wincing as players watched a limited offensive opponent dent them for 58 points in the paint, a 22-point improvement over Orlando’s season average. Defense remains the most elusive challenge for the Pistons, the single thing that if remedied would most boost their playoff push.

“We’ve got to clean up our defense, particularly our perimeter defense has to get a little bit better because they put so much pressure on our big guys when they break us down and get inside our paint,” Cheeks said. “The one area we have to get better is on the defensive end.”