Blake Griffin – healthy and at ease – emerges as Pistons unmistakable leader

CHICAGO – You get to middle age, teetering on the verge of grizzled veteran, in the blink of an eye in professional sports. Seems like yesterday rookie Blake Griffin was taking the NBA by storm and jumping over cars and now, here he is, the guy everyone on the Pistons looks to in the lonely moments when games are won or lost – or before and after games and all the other instances when a team’s identity takes shape.

The superman aura Griffin once projected has been dulled by the taint of injury, Adonis revealing an Achilles heel as big chunks of time were lost, and now he’s holding every moment close to his heart.

“This season for me is like, man, I don’t take being healthy for granted any more,” Griffin said after his second straight dominant outing – 33 points to lead a 118-116 win over the Bulls in their home opener – kept the Pistons unbeaten under Dwane Casey at 2-0. “Having a team like this and everybody being healthy right now, I don’t take that for granted.”

Griffin has fully emerged not just as the Pistons star – and, yeah, he’s playing at an elite level now, averaging 29.5 points, 10.0 rebounds and 5.5 assists on 50 percent shooting – but as their unmistakable leader.

It might have happened sooner but for the circumstances. Griffin was air-lifted into Detroit last winter, uprooted from the only NBA home he’d known in mid-season, leaving the Western Conference for the first time. He barely knew his way around and never really got to play with the team he anticipated surrounding him. Four games together – that’s what Griffin had with Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson last season.

But this season – with a full summer under his belt and months to grow familiar with his surroundings and comfortable with the notion of commanding the room – Griffin projects the sense of a man at ease with his role and the expectations placed on him.

He attacked this summer with a mix of surgical precision and unbridled energy, starting in the gym in May while the second round of the playoffs was unfolding after injuries kept him away from the court until August the past few summers. Dwane Casey watched some of those workouts and knew he had something special, something more than even he anticipated having even after watching Griffin put his mark on the NBA over the past many seasons.

“Blake’s an All-Star. He’s an All-Pro,” Casey said. “He’s finally healthy. When teams try to double team, he makes the right decisions. I didn’t know his basketball IQ was as high as it is. Unbelievable. He sees things before it happens.”

Casey has been around some guys who have or will have busts in Springfield someday and he’s already come to group Griffin with them in important shared characteristics.

“His mental toughness is like none I’ve seen,” Casey said after Griffin’s 33-point,12-rebound, five-assist, zero-turnover performance at United Center. “Gary Payton, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki – that type of mental toughness is what Blake Griffin is. I’m glad he’s on our team.”

Griffin juggled mixed emotions after the game – happy to be in the winning locker room, chagrined at the way the Pistons flirted with defeat. More relevant to his role as leader, his voice was heard as to the dangers of such flirtations.

“Through the course of the game, there’s a lot of things we need to get better at,” he said, a towel around his shoulders, his feet and ankles submerged in ice after logging nearly 35 hard minutes while Andre Drummond battled foul trouble all night. “Down the stretch, man, to win games you’ve got to be so air tight. We have the personnel to win games and mistakes like that are really going to come back to bite us.”

Too many times over the past few seasons, as the Pistons improved the roster bit by bit, they let momentum-building wins evaporate and saw pivot points in a season turn against them. Griffin is doing his best to be proactive, to warn against any dropping of their guard. He doesn’t want them easing into the season but to display an urgency now instead.

“These are must-win games,” he said. “The goal is to get to the playoffs, but it’s small steps along the way. We’ve got to be locked in.”

If the Pistons have had such leadership in their recent past, it hasn’t been voiced by someone who can lead from the front. The mantra that’s rippled through the coaching community forever still rings as true as ever. When your best player is also the one to hold teammates accountable, you have a good locker room.

In the two great eras of Pistons basketball, they surely had that. The Bad Boys were rife with those types, starting with Isiah Thomas, and the Goin’ to Work Pistons had a unique collective leadership as egalitarian in nature as their box-score contributions.

It’s too soon to project that level of greatness on these Pistons, but they’ve got one critical ingredient nailed. Blake Griffin – healthy and feeling at home – has established himself as their driving force. It’s going to be fun seeing where it takes them.