Defensive surge gives Pistons the feel of a team with staying power in playoff chase

Blake Griffin
The Pistons’ uptick in defensive rating and overall play has coincided with Blake Griffin’s return and improved chemistry in general
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

DETROIT – If you’re looking for a reason to believe the Pistons can get past their injury-peppered start, here’s where you start: Over their last 10 games, they’re the NBA’s No. 9 defense.

Ten games is a healthy sample size and look at the company they’re keeping inside the top 10: Denver, Milwaukee, Boston, Philadelphia, both Los Angeles teams, Dallas, Toronto and Indiana. Those nine teams hold a cumulative record of 148-45. The worst record among them belongs to Indiana at 15-8 – but the Pacers are 14-5 against the rest of the NBA, 1-3 against the Pistons.

The moral: Teams with top-10 defenses are almost always winning teams, playoff teams.

And if you’re looking for a reason to believe the top-10 defensive ranking is more indicative of who the Pistons are than their No. 20 defensive ranking for the season, consider Dwane Casey’s track record. His Toronto teams were routinely among the league’s elite defenses and the Pistons in his first season finished just outside the top 10 at 12th despite playing much of the season without a true small forward after trades of Reggie Bullock and Stanley Johnson.

What’s behind the uptick?

Time and health. Simple as that. As much as Casey hated talking about it during the first month while Blake Griffin missed 11 of the first 12 games and Derrick Rose missed five of six over an overlapping stretch, missing key players and throwing them back together without much in the way of familiarity to support them cost the Pistons

“Blake being back, Derrick getting back in game condition – just getting used to playing with each other,” Casey said after Sunday’s practice before the Pistons embarked on a weeklong road trip that includes a stop in Mexico City. “The chemistry on the defensive end, like I’ve said, is just as important as the chemistry on the offensive end. And we’re getting that. It’s taken a little longer than we thought, guys being in and out. We’re trending in the right direction.”

The open lanes to the basket and unmolested attacks have pretty much dried up over the last few weeks.

“That’s because of understanding, having a feel, the timing of rotations and understanding whose rotation it is,” Casey said. “We’re getting better with that. Those things take time and growth. As a unit, we’re getting it from everybody.”

The Pistons are also No. 9 in offense over those 10 games and continue to thrive at the 3-point line, where their .396 accuracy is No. 1 over Casey’s old team, the Raptors. If Casey has any wish for this offense, it’s to improve their No. 20 ranking in 3-point attempts.

“We’d like to get more – we need to get up more,” Casey said. “As well as we’re shooting it, we need to get more and one way you do that is cut down on your turnovers. If we weren’t shooting it well, I wouldn’t say that as strongly as I say it now, but we need to get more 3-pointers.”

The turnovers are coming under control, too – again, no surprise that played so many games without key ballhandlers Griffin, Rose and Reggie Jackson, who remains out with a back injury. The Pistons rank 26th for the season in turnovers at 16.3 per game but 16th over the last 10 at 14.8.

And that 10-game look back is meaningful for the Pistons for more than the recency and trend it indicates. It also coincides almost exactly with Griffin’s return. He’s now played 11 games and took the first three or four to really start resembling the All-NBA version of Blake Griffin from last season.

There’s one other ongoing adjustment to be made and – in this case, too – the signs of improvement are there. That’s the relationship between Griffin and Rose and their learning how to play off of each other in crunch time. With Griffin starting and Rose off the bench and both on something of a minutes watch, there’s little opportunity for them to get overlapping minutes before the last five minutes.

But they get a few midway through the first and third quarters when Rose enters and before Griffin takes a seat. Casey will judiciously use that to help them acclimate to each other.

“We try to find that at some point,” he said. “If the minutes are getting crunched, it’s not as important as those last few minutes of the game. If we have a chance to do it, great – I like to. But we’d rather save as much as we can for the guts of the game.”

And with the Pistons turning it around defensively and sharpening an already effective offense, chances are they’re going to face more “guts of the game” moments over the season’s remaining 59 games.

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