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Detroit Pistons still struggling to find a groove

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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.”

PBT Extra: What coaches are on hot seat? Alvin Gentry at front of list.

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This season, for the first time in 46 years, no NBA coach will be fired during the season (nobody is getting canned at this point).

However, once the off-season starts, there will be a few changes.

Alvin Gentry in New Orleans and Fred Hoiberg in Chicago are the names most mentioned, but there will be an unexpected firing somewhere around the league. Some GMs are on the hot seat also (Rob Hennigan in Orlando leads that parade).

I get into all of it in this latest PBT Extra.

Raptors’ Serge Ibaka, Bulls’ Robin Lopez each suspended one game for thrown punches

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It was obvious this was coming. Get in a shoving match “fight” in the NBA and you get a fine. However, actually throw punches and…

Toronto’s Serge Ibaka and Chicago’s Robin Lopez each have been suspended for one game by the NBA “for throwing punches at one another during an altercation,” the league announced. What that works out to is a $120,715 hit for Lopez and a $111,364 ding for Ibaka.

Also, Raptors assistant coach Jamaal Magloire earned a $15,000 fine shoving the Bulls Nikola Mirotic and “acting as other than a peacemaker as part of the same altercation.”

This all came out of what seemed a rather innocuous play. Ibaka and Lopez were battling for rebounding positioning, it went on for a second after the ball went through the hoop, Ibaka caught Lopez with a little chicken wing elbow in the back, Lopez spun, and, boy, that escalated quickly. Lopez’s punch missed, while Ibaka’s caught Lopez in the hair more than the body.

Both men got technicals and were ejected.

Report: Sixers Joel Embiid “very likely” to undergo off-season surgery on knee

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When the Philadelphia 76ers formally announced they were shutting down Joel Embiid for the season, the team’s chief medical director Dr. Jonathan Glashow said:

“The assessment of Monday’s follow-up MRI of Joel Embiid’s left knee appears to reveal that the area affected by the bone bruise has improved significantly, while the previously identified meniscus tear appears more pronounced in this most recent scan.”

That meniscus may require off-season surgery, reports Marc Stein of ESPN.

As described, this would be a minor surgery that likely has a 4-6 week recovery period. That said, you know the Sixers will bring him along slowly after this. Also, that’s just time Embiid is not on a practice court or in a pick-up game with Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, and the rest of the team’s young core. That’s the time the foundations of chemistry on a team are built.

Embiid averaged 20.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game despite a minutes restriction all season. He was incredibly efficient in getting his numbers — he had an All-Star level PER of 24.2 — and when he was on the court the Sixers outscored their opponents by 3 points per 100 possessions. He’s still likely a top three finisher in Rookie of the Year balloting despite playing in just 31 games.

Hopefully getting his knee cleaned up now means Embiid will be able to play in more games next season.

Report: Kevin Durant’s recovery going well, could return before end of season

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Back on Feb. 28, the Warriors’ leading scorer Kevin Durant suffered a grade 2 MCL sprain and a tibial bone bruise, an injury that happened when Zaza Pachulia fell into his knee. They planned to evaluate him at the end of the month, but this injury is often a 6-8 week issue, which would have him back around the start of the playoffs or in the first round.

The Warriors are optimistic it will be earlier than that, probably by the end of the season, reports Marc Stein and Chris Haynes of ESPN.

The Golden State Warriors aren’t scheduled to formally update the status of Kevin Durant’s left knee until next week, but there is cautious optimism within the organization that Durant — should he maintain his current recovery arc — will indeed be able to return to the court before the end of the regular season, according to league sources.

While noting that Durant is roughly at the halfway stage of his recovery journey, sources told ESPN.com that the Warriors are encouraged by the progress Durant has made in the 22 days since he suffered a sprained MCL and tibial bone bruise in his left knee on Feb. 28.

Durant was getting in some on-court work before the Warriors took on the Mavericks Tuesday.

The Warriors lost Durant at the start of their toughest schedule stretch of the season, and they stumbled some through that. However, after getting home (and playing some lesser teams in that stretch) the Warriors have gotten right, Stephen Curry is shooting well again, Matt Barnes and Patrick McCaw are playing well enough, and the Warriors have won five in a row. They are in the driver’s seat to be the No. 1 seed in the West (the biggest challenge to that is a road back-to-back in Houston and San Antonio next week, get a split there and the Warriors become tough to catch).

Between the end of the season and an easy first round — neither Denver nor Portland play enough good defense to slow the Warriors — the Warriors will have time to blend Durant back into the fold. If the Warriors can find their stride again with him, they are the favorites to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June.