Dirty? Casey ‘cringes’ at the charge, but he wants physical – and he gets it

Blake Griffin
Blake Griffin and the Pistons exhibited the physical style of play Dwane Casey implores in their Friday night win over Indiana.
Chris Schwegler/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

DETROIT – Anybody who recalls the NBA of a generation or two ago – and especially the Bad Boys – would have found suggestions the Pistons roughed up the Milwaukee Bucks this week preposterous.

Dwane Casey’s memory stretches back at least that far.

“I cringe when people say our guys were playing dirty the other night vs. (Giannis) Antetokounmpo – nowhere even close,” Casey said before Friday’s game with Indiana. “One play he got knocked down, I didn’t know who flopped worse – him or the guy who hit him.”

But he wants physical. And physical is what the Pistons gave him in a most satisfying win Friday over Indiana.

“We knew it was going to be a playoff-style game,” Casey said. “I thought the last few minutes, down the stretch, was indicative of how the game should have been played – boxing out, hitting people, if you get a foul, hard foul – not a dirty foul. It was a body-to-body game down the stretch.”

And in a game against a physical Indiana team, coached by Nate McMillan – an old Casey peer from when they were assistants together on George Karl’s staff in Seattle in the ’90s – the Pistons posted their largest rebounding differential of the season with a 51-33 edge. In second-chance points, the Pistons won by knockout, 25-2.

It was exactly the response Casey hoped from his team after its last outing in which Milwaukee took umbrage over … well, Casey wasn’t quite sure. Antetokounmpo took exception to a few incidents involving contact between him and Blake Griffin, though the NBA reviewed one incident and only wound up administering technical fouls for the post-contact kerfuffle that ensued.

None of it reflected any frustration the Pistons might have felt at losing again to Milwaukee – which has won all 10 meetings over the last two seasons, including the four-game playoff sweep last April – Casey insisted to a line of questioning implying it was a case of familiarity breeding contempt.

“No,” he said. “It’s about being physical, not trying to count how many games we’ve faced them, tired of (them). No. It’s about playing them physical whether we’re playing Cleveland, Milwaukee – doesn’t matter who it is. We want to play a physical style of basketball where I’m going to make it difficult for you to go where you want to go.”

Some hear “physical” and inevitably think “dirty.” That’s not what Casey’s talking about. He wants defenders to move their feet to get in front of ballhandlers and cutters and then stand their ground, not lean to avoid contact. He wants firm box-outs and screens that deliver instead of absorb the blow, players willing to withstand the jostling that will inevitably occur in the paint as offensive players cut through it and ballhandlers willing to put themselves at risk when taking the ball to the rim.

It’s something he’s preached since arriving from Toronto, where his Raptors were known as one of the NBA’s most physical teams.

“You can’t do it one night against a great player,” he said. “You’ve got to do it each and every night and make it a habit. Physical is not just on the defensive end – it’s physical screens, taking the ball to the hoop, taking it through bodies, getting hit through physicality on their defensive end. It means running the floor hard, getting to your Xs offensively. There’s a lot of different ways we’re trying to create that.”

And when you play that way with five players consistently, at both ends of the floor, you will inevitably ruffle feathers and annoy an opponent who wishes you’d back off the throttle. It’s not easy to play that way and it’s not fun to play against that style. But it’s not dirty. It’s not about throwing elbows or administering a forearm to the kidneys when the action is on the other side of the court and you’re sure the officials aren’t watching.

“No. Not even close,” Casey said. “You tell a player to be dirty, there’s a lot of games (missed via suspension). I wouldn’t do that. I’ve never done that. I never want to hurt a player. But being physical is different.”

It was once the norm, of course, and the superstars or those eras went into every game with a full expectation that they’d be shown to the floor a few times as the price of getting to the rim. Casey isn’t calling for a return to that day. But if the alternative is to step aside like a matador, well, not that either.

“Freedom of movement, which is a great rule, doesn’t mean freedom to go to the rim for a layup or freedom to take any shot you want to take,” he said. “Freedom of movement is one thing. We want to make it difficult for them to get their shot, to get to the rim, have bodies in the way, touching them legally – those types of things is what we’re talking about. Being a physical, body-to-body team.”

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