Backs to the wall against a powerful foe, but Griffin sees ‘passion’ that bodes well for Pistons future
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
DETROIT – The Pistons gathered on Easter morning, but not to hunt colored eggs. Their quarry was a tad more elusive: a blueprint to beating the team that’s been the best in the NBA since opening night.
They weren’t able to do it in two games at Milwaukee without their best player and they weren’t able to do it when Blake Griffin returned on Saturday before the first Pistons playoff game hosted inside Detroit’s city limits in 34 years.
Reminder: The Bucks are good. Without Griffin, Milwaukee probably needed to play its C game while the Pistons played an A+ game for them to have a shot. With Griffin, it might have narrowed to the Pistons needing an A game while the Bucks played a B- game. Before a rowdy home crowd that Griffin said “I haven’t seen it like that in my entire time here,” the Pistons – perhaps too keyed up – made way too many mental mistakes to stay close.
As a spectator in Milwaukee, Griffin saw the Pistons stray from the game plan and short circuit their chance for an early upset that might have changed the texture of the series.
“Not even close,” he said after Sunday’s practice at Little Caesars Arena. “So now we’re going into Game 2 not knowing if our game plan works, simply because we didn’t execute it.”
It was significantly better in Game 2 and Griffin expounded on the subject as a means of extolling the benefits of playoff experience for a team largely devoid of it. In Game 3, before that riled home crowd, the Pistons played uncharacteristically at times, Griffin said – another playoff experience that can be applied down the road.
“The playoffs, it’s exciting. It’s a different brand of basketball. It gets guys going, but at the same time, you have to have a little bit of calmness to yourself to make sure you’re not getting outside of yourself or trying to do too much or overthinking the game.”
And doing it against Milwaukee means little gaffes get fully exploited. Casey said the Pistons had “three lulls” in Game 3 that killed them.
“Growth and experience,” he said. “Being in this situation multiple times and going through it. For us, getting to the playoffs was a huge step. We’re going to free agency this summer, the draft, now we understand what our needs are.”
Casual fans who drop in on the NBA for the playoffs likely don’t appreciate how powerful Milwaukee really is. No one should be surprised if the Bucks wind up on the podium in two months. A mark of championship-caliber teams is to be able to counter whatever styles get thrown at them over the gauntlet of the playoffs. The Bucks stack up on that count.
“Big time,” Casey said. “They have every piece.”
Milwaukee’s wins have been decisive. The Pistons were the NBA’s No. 8 rebounding team by rebound percentage over the regular season, but the Bucks have won the boards convincingly in each game – by 11, eight and seven. The Bucks were No. 5 in rebound percentage during the regular season and No. 2 in defensive rebound percentage, blunting one of the Pistons’ primary strengths, offensive rebounding.
Logic said the Pistons needed to limit turnovers and shoot well from the 3-point arc to give themselves a shot in the series. On turnovers, they’ve succeeded, committing only 10.3 a game. From the 3-point line, not so much. They’ve shot .313, which ranks 13th among the 16 playoff teams. The Bucks have won the battle of the arc in all three games.
“Our shooters are totally out of rhythm right now,” Casey said, a nod to Milwaukee’s length and ability to zero in on shooters like Wayne Ellington and Luke Kennard without exposing themselves elsewhere.
“I think last night was a pretty good example of the type of team Milwaukee is,” Griffin said. “We obviously give Giannis (Antetokounmpo) a lot of attention, deservedly so, and for his standards you would say that was a subpar game. They still had (Eric) Bledsoe go for however many. Brook Lopez. Pat Connaughton to me has dominated the series in his role. George Hill has been great. Khris Middleton. (Ersan) Ilyasova had a very efficient game last night. Not only do they have weapons, but they use their weapons really well and have designed a team that really complements each other and complements Giannis and some of their best players.”
That said, the Pistons weren’t running a white flag up the pole on Sunday.
“The message is about pride,” Casey said. “You’re not going to get those three games back. So let’s go step by step. Things we can control first and getting one possession at a time, one quarter at a time and ultimately one game at a time.”
Griffin has been a barometer for where the Pistons have been headed all season. In the early going when they were winning, he warned of mental mistakes that would cost them at some point. In the depths of December and January, he spoke of a team sticking together and predicted a turnaround. He’s already seen evidence of growth for the experience of getting to the playoffs.
“It’s not for lack of effort,” he said of the 3-0 deficit the Pistons face. “Game 1 was a pretty bad game for us, but Game 2, sitting there watching how we competed for most of that game was beautiful. It was inspiring to me. You could see the passion, the fire. We just didn’t put it together for 48 minutes. We’re taking steps. We haven’t put it all together yet. Hopefully, the city of Detroit, these fans, can appreciate at least the effort and us trying to make that change.”