MILWAUKEE -- All dressed up with no Blake to go.
This was going to be daunting enough for the Detroit Pistons, the last team to qualify for the NBA postseason matched up in a No. 1 vs. No. 8 first-round series where the talent and achievement gap between them and the Milwaukee Bucks is a chasm.
Then Dwane Casey showed up 90 minutes before tipoff and the first words out of the Detroit coach’s mouth were about Blake Griffin, his sore left knee and the All-Star forward’s unavailability for Game 1 Sunday on the Bucks court at Fiserv Forum.
Casey’s first words became for all practical purposes his and the Pistons’ famous last words. Like Griffin, they were non-starters, falling behind 18-4 in the first four minutes and 70-43 by halftime.
The final score, 121-86 left in the third quarter.
That’s right, Milwaukee won this one with a quarter and a half to spare. The bucket that got the Bucks to 88, by the way, was a breakout slam by Giannis Antetokounmpo that you’ll see a few times on highlight reels, considering how he took off after a couple massive steps from just inside the foul line to throw down the dunk.
Would a healthy and available Griffin have made up all that difference Sunday night? Hard to say, but probably not. The Bucks, the only team to reach 60 victories this season, were rested and hungry, and it showed. Griffin’s cohort, center Andre Drummond, was a staggering minus-45 in the 26 minutes he lasted before getting ejected for a flagrant 2 foul with 4:07 to go in the third.
That’s when Griffin made his only tangible contribution, getting whistled by referee Pat Fraher for a technical foul for the manner in which he objected to the flagrant 2 replay ruling.
Griffin afterward said he was agitated by an uneven application of the rules, specifically citing a Russell Westbrook elbow Pistons reserve center Zaza Pachulia took across the face, while vulnerable in mid-air, against Oklahoma City recently. That was called a flagrant 1. Drummond’s was a two-handed shove that sent Antetkounmpo to the floor as they battled beneath the rim.
“It was flagrant but I don’t think Andre deserved it to be out the rest of the game,” Griffin said. “At least that’s my opinion. If they’re both flagrant 2s, I understand. If [they’re both a] flagrant 1, I understand. But there can’t be that big a disparity between the two.”
Of greater concern for now is the disparity between the Bucks (who have injuries of their own and thus need not apologize for Sunday’s thrashing) and the Pistons without Griffin.
He missed four of Detroit’s final seven games in the regular season, and now five of eight overall, with what has been termed “soreness.” When he scored 45 points at Oklahoma City April 5, he had been held out from three games and had been out a full week.
Two nights later, at Charlotte, Griffin was noticeably hobbled again, shooting 5-of-18 and dragging around a leg so heavily wrapped that one wag described it as “mummified.” Griffin lasted barely a half in the Pistons’ must-win against Memphis on Tuesday and was in street clothes again the next night when his teammates managed to snag the East’s No. 8 seed anyway in New York.
Any claim that they’re somehow adapting to Griffin’s absence is false. As Casey said after his team slipped into its 0-1 hole: “You don’t just replace him… It’s like them not having Antetokounmpo. It’s a big blow.”
Griffin, 30, was reborn this season in Detroit, his first full campaign there after being traded to the Pistons in January 2018. It’s more than his career-best scoring rate (25.3 points per 36 minutes) or personal high .581 true-shooting percentage. As a power forward, he’s become an accomplished ball handler and he has put some real stretch in his game from the perimeter.
“He does so many things for them,” said Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer. “He can be the ball handler on pick and rolls. They can have big guys coming, setting screens. They can have smaller guys coming, setting screens. He can play 1-on-1 from the post. He’s a significantly improved 3-point shooter, so he’s got a great pump fake-and-go game.
“He’s Blake Griffin. He’s a dynamic offensive player, scorer, athlete.”
Trouble is, he’s inactive with no verifiable return in sight. This series could last another two weeks, if it were to go seven games, but there’s no sense of when or if Griffin would be ready. And let’s put it this way: If he’s not ready soon, it won’t be going seven. Or even five.
Casey and some players felt the Pistons were too amped up at tipoff for this big developmental step of the postseason. But learning they’d be opening the series without their best player – and perhaps dealing with this right into their offseason – had to deflate them as well.
“He was definitely missed,” said Drummond, who refused to answer questions about his shove of Antetokounmpo. “A lot of our points are off the board at the moment.”
Guard Wayne Ellington, who shot 2-for-10, said: “Obviously we can’t really fathom how big of a blow it is for us. But here we are. We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do. Hopefully Blake will get better and be able to come out there with us, but if not, we’ve got to continue to play.”
All season long, the standard by which the severity of injuries are measured is this familiar question: If this was a playoff game, would the guy be playing? Well, this was a playoff game. And Griffin was inactive.
No one has thrown around any specific orthopedic terms so far – like meniscus tear, tendinitis or sprain – so what Griffin calls a “complex situation” has an air of mystery to it.
But he made sure to let reporters know afterward that missing Game 1 was not his doing. “If it was just my decision, I would have played,” he said. Then he repeated it: “If it was just my decision, I would have played.”
If the injury is severe, no one is going to suggest the Pistons put at risk a player who is one of the prime assets. Not in an underdog series where, even if healthy, their odds of topping the Bucks would be long.
Until Griffin steps on the court (rather than a treadmill) at something close to full effectiveness, though, this best-of-seven set is going to be provide some teachable moments for Detroit – in the playoffs for only the second time in 10 years -- and little else.
Granted, the Pistons are getting reps without Griffin lately. But they’re 2-6 this season when he doesn’t play, so they’re not necessarily great reps.
“There’s no replacing him,” Ellington said.
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