Another big night for Pistons bench leaves Griffin fresh to carry Pistons past Golden State

DETROIT – You can’t win a game in the second quarter any more than you can clinch a playoff berth on the first day of December.

But the Pistons got a very big win on December’s first day – a 111-102 win over the two-time defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors on the occasion of Steph Curry’s return from injury – thanks in large measure to the way their bench seized control of the game to start the second quarter.

Dwane Casey doesn’t like to go too long without either Blake Griffin or Andre Drummond on the floor, but he was able to give both an extended rest because his second unit played so well.

“I don’t even want to call ’em the second unit,” Casey said, opting instead for “the guys that came in the game.”

The guys that came in the game were Stanley Johnson, Langston Galloway, Ish Smith, Zaza Pachulia and Bruce Brown. And when Casey waved Griffin and Drummond back into the game with 4:37 left before halftime – after Griffin had sat for 8:33 and Drummond for 7:23 – the Pistons held a 45-37 lead from a 24-all tie after one quarter.

Especially with the Pistons playing the second game of a back to back while Golden State was in town resting, that was a critical stretch keyed by superb defense – Johnson and Brown especially – and the scoring of Johnson, Galloway and Smith. Griffin wound up playing just 34 minutes, two below his average, and Drummond a little less than that.

“It was huge. That’s secondary – us getting a break,” Griffin said. “The way the second unit set the tone – Stanley, Zaza, Ish – they set the tone for the rest of the game. Ish did a great job in the third and the beginning of the fourth that same way. When both units are playing like that, it makes it tough to beat us.”

Johnson’s been on a roll since coming out of the starting lineup in early November, fitting ideally alongside Smith’s pace-pushing instincts, Pachulia’s fundamentally sound post play and Galloway’s fearless trigger. Brown’s defense – Casey calls the rookie and Johnson “pit bulls” on the wing – has completed the picture.

“I just know we were playing really, really hard and we were playing together,” said Johnson, who scored 19 points to go with seven rebounds and two assists in 23 minutes, most of them spent matched against Kevin Durant. “It really didn’t matter who scored or who got the stops or anything like that. I think we did a good job of getting Ish the ball on the run and he was making a lot of plays for us.”

Galloway added 11 points, four rebounds and two assists and Smith 11 points and two assists. Once again, all five posted positive plus/minus numbers.

Once the second unit gave the Pistons the lead, they never relinquished it. But things got dicey late in the third quarter when over a five-minute stretch Golden State outscored the Pistons 18-7 as Curry – back after an 11-game injury absence – started heating up. He was 2 of 9 in a seven-point first half, but finished with 27. Durant added 28 and Klay Thompson 21.

But Golden State’s bench was outscored 43-13 and the ability of the Pistons bench to maintain and stretch the lead with Griffin and Drummond on the bench left Griffin fresh enough to put the Pistons on his shoulders down the stretch. He scored nine points in the final 6:43, moving to center when Casey responded to Golden State’s intention to foul Andre Drummond – who went 2 of 8 at the foul line – by removing Drummond.

Two huge triples in the final four minutes – one from Johnson with 3:46 left to put the Pistons up 14, the other from Griffin at 2:31 to push it back to 13 – sealed the win.

Griffin exhorted the sellout crowd of 20,332 to their feet after his bomb cut the heart out of Golden State’s attempted rally.

“You try to get the crowd into moments like that,” Griffin said. “To me, that’s a big moment. Not that particular just hitting a three, it’s just being up 13, 12, 11, 10, three minutes left. That’s something we want the fans to recognize and stand up and be behind us.”

The win leaves the Pistons – winners of five straight and nine of their last 11 – at 13-7 at essentially the quarter-pole of the NBA season.

“Guys are playing with a lot of energy, together,” Casey said. “And the great thing about it is the fact I don’t think we’re anywhere near where we can get to if we stay together and keep doing the things we need to do.”