‘Always everywhere’ Maker quickly wins over Pistons with infectious energy

PHOENIX – Good night for the Pistons, great night for Ed Stefanski.

The much-needed Thursday win over Phoenix kept the Pistons in the No. 6 playoff spot, ahead of Brooklyn and Miami on their heels. The mainstays had much to do with it: 16 points and 19 rebounds for Andre Drummond; 17 points, eight assists and seven boards for Blake Griffin despite subpar shooting he attributed to being out of rhythm after a three-day break; a combined 25 points from point guards Reggie Jackson and Ish Smith.

For all of that, the contributions of the players Stefanski and his front office have added in their 10 months on the job were critically needed. Rookie Bruce Brown was first in line to guard Devin Booker, who was held to 2 of 10 shooting after the first quarter. Wayne Ellington led the Pistons in scoring for a second straight game, his 23 points fueled by 6 of 10 3-point shooting.

And quietly, perhaps nobody had a bigger influence on getting a game that began as Monday’s loss at Cleveland ended – with the other guys running offense way too comfortably and knocking down shots that should have come more grudgingly – turned around than Thon Maker.

You’d have a strong argument if you said that it was the best of Maker’s 18 games with the Pistons since Stefanski negotiated the three-team trade that sent Stanley Johnson to New Orleans and brought on Maker from Milwaukee. He and Luke Kennard led in plus/minus at plus-20. Maker scored 10 points in 28 minutes, grabbing six rebounds and blocking three shots. He hit 5 of 6 free throws and 2 of 4 shots, 1 of 2 from the 3-point arc.

“He’s been great,” Blake Griffin said. “Just his energy, man. He’s just always everywhere. And if he’s not blocking shots, he’s swinging for the fences. It’s making people think and it’s making people be aware of where he is.”

Griffin broke into a wide grin as he talked about Maker, the default position for his coaches and teammates. Maker’s enthusiasm is infectious and his heart is on both sleeves.

Dwane Casey remembered Maker from the 2017 playoffs when, as a rookie, he helped Milwaukee push Toronto to six games in the first round. From assistant coach Sean Sweeney, a member of Jason Kidd’s staff for Maker’s first two seasons, he knew the Pistons were adding a player embodying all the things he preaches.

“Thon’s one of the grittiest guys on our team,” Casey said after his contributions to the Phoenix win. “Defensively, he used his length all over the place. He’s one of those kids you don’t have to say ‘giddyup’ to. He’s always ready to go. We needed that when we were in mud defensively.”

Casey thinks there’s a lot more to squeeze from Maker, a project that will begin in earnest not long after the Pistons season ends – he hopes after a few more playoff series.

“There’s a lot to be worked on,” Maker said. “Always try to improve my overall game. He wants to see me more of a playmaker, putting me in that role of making passes leading to scores, being more responsible on the ball. This summer is going to require me to be focused on those types of plays in terms of handles or passing. I’m going to continue to work on my body. I’m going to continue to work on my defense, my lateral quickness and staying in front of guards. When we go small and I’m at the five, I switch onto smalls – defending without fouling, moving my feet against those guys.”

Maker got thrown into the fray by Casey immediately upon joining the team, playing against the Knicks on Feb. 8 without having gone through a practice. He’s been a part of the rotation for every game since, backing up both Griffin and Drummond. He’s a lot more comfortable now, he admits, though there’s still the occasional gaffe.

“We have a big playbook that took a little while,” Maker grinned. “Me and Coach tried to get on the same page a few times. Still tonight I messed up two of the plays and we laughed about it, but he’s giving me the time to get used to it. He’s helping out by calling plays I’m very familiar with and he’s telling me to play hard, play through it, mess up and keep playing.”

Maker did exactly that amid the game’s critical juncture when the Pistons outscored Phoenix 17-2 over a four-minute stretch early in the fourth quarter. He had a steal, two rebounds and knocked down a couple of free throws during that run, keyed by the suffocating defense he and Drummond played up front with Ish Smith, Langston Galloway and Luke Kennard scrambling on the perimeter.

“Taking a stance and being aggressive,” Maker said of the mindset the Pistons leaned on to get the game under their control. “Dre did a good job on the pick and roll and then we helped him on the back side, as well. Guys were in the right areas, in passing lanes, got some steals, got out and ran. I think that’s what it took – just being aggressive.”

Maker’s infectious energy ramps up the intensity level of a second unit of which he’s become an integral part.

“He brings it every night,” Casey said. “Every night, that young man brings it and sets the tone for everybody else.”

“He’s able to come over and really change a lot of shots,” Galloway said. “That’s big for the second unit. You’ve got to watch out for him at all times. You don’t know where he’s coming from. His tenacity and playing with a lot of passion is huge for us.”