LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

Phoenix — With Monday’s loss at Cleveland, the Pistons missed an opportunity to create some cushion in their quest to make it back to the playoffs in the East. The struggling Cavaliers (18-53) have been playing better, but the Pistons were on a roll.

In the first three meetings with Cleveland this season, the Pistons had won by an average of 18 points. Monday’s game was one that they shouldn’t have lost — even without Blake Griffin, who was resting.

Instead of a one-game lead over Brooklyn for sixth place, the Pistons could have doubled that. Couple that loss with the Nets’ stunning win over the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday night, in which they erased a 25-point deficit entering the fourth quarter to trim the Pistons’ margin to just a half-game.

“Our defensive disposition was nil to start the game. We didn’t play like a playoff team that was hungry and desperate to make the playoffs,” coach Dwane Casey said. “We have some (players) who try, but it’s not enough; there’s another level we have to get to.”

The Pistons (36-34) start the western gauntlet Thursday at Phoenix, but the trip boasts three of its most difficult matchups in the final 12 games of the schedule: at Portland, at Golden State and at Denver. If the Pistons can salvage two wins from that, they should be in good shape.

The top seeds in the East are starting to take shape. The Bucks (53-18) have a three-game lead over the Raptors, who have a four-game margin over the third-place Sixers. The top three seeds have the easiest remaining schedules of teams in the playoff race.

The Pacers are 2½ more games behind, in fourth and likely will face the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs.

The bottom of East playoff picture isn’t as clearly defined. The Pistons lead the Nets by a half-game and the Heat by two games. The ninth-place Magic are 3½ games from sixth, but have a favorable remaining schedule.

Here’s a look at the remaining schedule strength:

Top teams in East

Bucks (First in East): 23th hardest, .466 opponents’ win percentage

Raptors (2): 29th, .430

Sixers (3): 28th, .443

Fighting for playoff spots

Pistons (6): 12th, .512 opponents winning percentage

Nets (7): 1st, .622

Heat (8): 10th, .529

Magic (9): 18th, .488

Little rest down the stretch

The Pistons are on a sprint in the last three weeks of the regular season, with 12 games in 20 days. While rest has become a big concern, with Griffin missing Monday’s game, it’s a bigger issue for the rest of the team, which will have two days’ rest before Thursday’s game in Phoenix.

They won’t have another such break for the remainder of the season, with nine games on one day of rest and two games on the second day of a back-to-back. That could be problematic, as the Pistons have struggled in those situations.

This season, the Pistons are 18-24 with only one day of rest; they’re 5-6 in the second of back-to-backs. Their final two back-to-backs this season both are on the road: against the Warriors and against the Knicks in the regular-season finale.

Pistons at Suns

Tip-off: 10 p.m. Thursday, Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix

TV: FSD-Plus/WWJ

Outlook: The Pistons start their four-game western road trip against the struggling Suns (17-55), who have lost four of their last six games. The Pistons won the earlier meeting easily at Little Caesars Arena.

rod.beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard

LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE