While that other winter sports team in town tries to keep a certain streak alive, the Pistons are trying to kill one.

It’s not too much to say that the Pistons, tonight, are playing their most anticipated game in nearly a decade.

The big games for this basketball franchise used to be played in May and June, with regularity. Memorial Days around here were filled with outdoor barbecues, beer and a Pistons (or Red Wings) playoff game on the tube. That was a long time ago.

But these days, the Red Wings play their biggest games in February and March, which has been their wont in recent years as they make their annual, frantic push to keep their “we made the playoffs again!” streak going.

And the Pistons?

Tonight, they’ll host the Washington Wizards at the Palace and the Pistons will be in the playoffs—no ifs, and or buts—if they can defeat the Wiz.

No getting in through the back door. No needing help from other teams.

Win, and they’re in—for the first time since 2009.

But that 2008-09 Pistons team—coached by neophyte Michael Curry and reeling all season from the November trade of Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson—was one of those token playoff teams that the NBA needs to merely fill out the opening round schedule. The Pistons were drummed out in four straight games by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Palace hasn’t hosted this big of a night since the 2008 NBA playoffs, which was the last time the Pistons were truly relevant in the league.

And it’s the 80th game of the regular season tonight, which shows you how far this franchise has fallen since the glory days of six straight Eastern Conference finals appearances (2003-08).

But this season has seen two numbers from those days being raised to the rafters (Billups and Ben Wallace) and a playoff team in the making as president/coach Stan Van Gundy finishes Year Two of his deconstruction and rebuilding job.

Under Van Gundy’s direction, the Pistons are on the verge of being a playoff team for the first time since 2009

 

It’s been an interesting though sometimes maddening season, if you follow the Pistons.

They have shown a confounding tendency to beat the good teams—sometimes on the road—while losing to the dregs of the league. They play stellar defense one night and look like pylons the next. The coach can’t heap enough praise on them one moment, then is tearing into his team’s effort in another few blinks of the eye.

It’s a team that beat the Golden State Warriors on the night Wallace’s no. 3 was retired, and just a few nights later was being lit up by its coach for dogging it.

The Pistons, at 42-37, possess the appropriate won/lost record for a your garden variety Jekyll and Hyde group of cagers.

Tonight, a win over the Wizards puts this sometimes perplexing, Dirty Dozen into the playoffs for the first time in seven years.

The Pistons have already clinched their first winning record since 2007-08. It wasn’t all that long ago when the Pistons were a 5-23 laughing stock, in Van Gundy’s first year as the boss.

So the Palace ought to be rocking tonight, and with good reason. I’m not here to throw cold water on the Pistons making the playoffs, which they are actually on the verge of doing in a year where, for a change, every Eastern Conference team in the tournament might have a .500 or better record.

And, frankly, this year’s Pistons might also be a token playoff team, likely no better than the no. 7 seed in a league that sees first round upsets more infrequently than we see leap years.

But they probably will win a game or two in the first round, whether they play Cleveland or Toronto, the two probable opponents that await them.

It will be a big night tonight. Maybe even the owner will show up.

The Pistons’ magic number to make the playoffs is one with three games to play. But who wants to qualify because another team lost?

Beat the Wizards and punch your post-season ticket.

It will be loud and festive at the Palace tonight, but it will only be a sampling of what the crowds will be like in Games 3 and 4 of the first round.

The fans in this town have never been much for NBA basketball if their team isn’t relevant, but give them a winner and they’ll show up—and be noisy.

Detroit is a front-runners basketball town, but it is what it is. Someone has to be fourth in a four sports burg. There really is no shame in that if you’re the Pistons.

The playoffs beckon for the Pistons. Van Gundy has had to overplay his starters in order to qualify, and that won’t help in the post-season, but you do what you have to do if you want to give your young team a taste of spring basketball.

The Pistons will likely be out of the tourney in about 10 days or so, but making the playoffs for the first time in seven years is a big deal—especially when in just about every one of those playoff-less seasons, the Pistons were essentially mathematically eliminated by Christmas.

It will be fascinating to see how the Pistons go about their business tonight against the Wizards. For so many of the players on the roster, this is the biggest game they’ve played in their NBA careers. Heck, Van Gundy said that about last week’s game in Chicago, which the Pistons scrapped and won with the Bulls breathing down their necks in the playoff chase.

It hasn’t been this big in the regular season for the Pistons in a long, long time.

Spring basketball is just around the corner—and the Pistons can go out there and grab a playoff spot, without any help, if they beat Washington.

It’s a start.

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