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The NBA’s Hottest Team Is … the Detroit Pistons?

Blake Griffin and Co. have played themselves into the postseason picture, and on Sunday night against Toronto, they got their biggest win of the season. If the Pistons can keep this up, they may present a nightmare first-round matchup in the East.

Reggie Jackson smiling Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

This season, the NBA’s Eastern Conference has been similar to my junior year of high school: great GPA, mediocre test scores. Half of it’s good, half of it’s less than ideal, and all of it’s confusing when trying to determine whether the student—or in this case, the conference—is actually good. In that lower-half sludge, where someone, anyone, has to make the playoffs, two teams have stood out: The Nets bring a fun style and pace to the game, which has made them something of an NBA hipster favorite. And then there are the Pistons, who represent quite the opposite. But after Sunday’s 112-107 overtime win over the 2-seed Toronto Raptors, Detroit can claim the title of the NBA’s hottest team.

While this development may have sneaked up on the rest of the league, it didn’t on the Pistons themselves, who have slowly been turning things around since the start of the year. They lost four straight games in early January, and since then have gone 14-8 and won 10 of their last 13. And Sunday marked arguably their biggest win of the season. The Raptors were without Kawhi Leonard (insert your load management joke here), but that didn’t take away from what Detroit did. This was a win that crystallized the team’s improvement and demonstrated exactly how it’s been able to turn the corner.

Over their last 13 games, the Pistons have the fourth-most efficient offense in the league and the fourth-best defense. Their net rating of plus-8.6 is second in the NBA during that stretch. Shorten that time frame down to their last 11 games and they jump to first in offense rating, scoring a Warriorsesque 118.1 points per 100 possessions. This kind of performance likely isn’t sustainable, but it has given the franchise hope—hope that its players are peaking at the right time and hope that this season won’t end up like the last two.

The Pistons have started off well the past two seasons (going 10-10 in their first 20 games two years ago, and 14-6 last year) before spiraling downward in the back half of the year and finishing outside the playoff picture. This season, they began 13-7 and are trying to avoid a similar fate. There are still 20 games this season—enough for Detroit to stumble again and miss the playoffs. The Pistons are currently in sole possession of the no. 6 seed, two and a half games up on the 8- and 9-seeds, Orlando and Charlotte. But the most impressive part about this stretch hasn’t been the wins: It’s the way some of their most important (and divisive) players are performing.

Take the much-maligned Reggie Jackson, for example. Throughout the course of his career, Jackson has been the ultimate trick-or-treat point guard. That was evident again Sunday, as he drained the clutch 3-pointer that tied the game late in overtime, but not before having his share of frustrating moments. Zoom out on his last 13 games, though, and it’s clear how the Pistons’ improvement has coincided with his own. Jackson is averaging 20 points and five assists per game and is shooting an incandescent 48.1 from 3 on 13 attempts. This is not the Jackson we’re used to, but it’s the one the Pistons have been hoping for over the last few years.

And then there’s Blake Griffin, who has been the team’s foundation from the start of the season. He’s averaging a career-high 25.5 points per game and shooting a career-best 36.6 percent from deep (minimum one attempt per game). If the last few years have represented Griffin’s transformation from an inside presence to an outside-in dynamo, then this year’s performance has been proof that he’s fully formed in his new role. He didn’t have a great game against the Raptors, and yet he still ended up with 27 points.

It’s not just Griffin and Jackson who have fueled this run, though. The cast around them is also thriving. Since sitting out three games at the end of January, Drummond—who is still only 25—is averaging 21 points and 16 rebounds in his last 15 games. Detroit is 10-3 when he grabs 20 boards or more.

Adding Wayne Ellington off the buyout market has also given the Pistons a shooting boost they badly needed, as has the emergence of second-year player Luke Kennard. Kennard gets a bad rap. The Pistons (specifically, Stan Van Gundy’s Pistons) took Kennard with the 12th overall pick in the 2017 draft. The next pick was Donovan Mitchell. Kennard isn’t Mitchell, but he should turn into what he was in college at Duke: a sharpshooter. For the first one and a half seasons of his career, the results were mixed, but over the last 20 games, Kennard is shooting over 40 percent from deep (he’s shot 40.1 percent on the season). On Sunday, he was the spark off the Pistons’ typically bleak bench and downed five 3s for only the fourth time in his career.

Seeing most, if not all, of the Pistons’ key players thriving simultaneously provides a glimpse of the kind of team their on-paper talent says they should be: not just a playoff team, but one that could be dangerous in the right matchup. That matchup could present itself this year, as the Pistons have suddenly bumped themselves up to a seeding where they likely wouldn’t have to face the Raptors or Bucks in the first round of the playoffs, but rather the Pacers—which gives them as good a chance as any to generate an upset. First, though, they will have to finish getting there.