A final standing ovation for Blake Griffin and what it says about Dwane Casey’s first season as Pistons coach

Blake Griffin
Blake Griffin’s first full season with the Pistons ended with a rousing standing ovation for gutting out the final 2 playoff games on an injured left leg.
Brian Sevald/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS – If you’re prone to believe that everything happens for a reason, then let’s explore what, exactly, was the reason that – after defying the skeptics to play 72 of the season’s first 75 games – Blake Griffin’s knee acted up?

If it doesn’t happen, the Pistons very likely win another game or two instead of taking home losses to Indiana and Charlotte in the season’s final 10 days and wind up with the No. 6 or 7 seed and a more favorable playoff matchup than what they got in Milwaukee. They were 0-4 against the Bucks in the regular season and 3-0 against Toronto, and while that’s not everything, it’s not nothing, either.

But take a step back. There was a pretty clear line of demarcation between the top five teams in the East this season – Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia, Boston, Indiana – and the field. And once Victor Oladipo went down, Indiana more closely resembled the field than the top four. So a first-round upset was always going to be a reach for the Pistons.

Dwane Casey set making the playoffs as the baseline goal of his first season as Pistons coach. But you have to peel another layer off of the onion to get to the essence of his mission for 2018-19. Making the playoffs was merely the fruit he hoped the tree he planted last summer and nurtured ever since would bear.

The mission of his first season was really about establishing the Pistons as he envisions them – implementing all of his tenets on offense and defense, yes, but more critically instilling a mentality, a belief system, a code of conduct. Establishing a culture, building good habits and laying a foundation are the terms he used daily. More than dangling the carrot of a playoff berth, he spoke to his team about the building blocks it required.

Heeding those calls with diligence was only made possible with the buy-in of the locker room and, more specifically than that, with the leadership in that room. It could only have been accomplished with the affirmation of Griffin.

Casey got more than he could have hoped from his All-Star on that front. Griffin unfailingly referred to him as “coach Casey,” an unmistakable measure of respect. Rookie Bruce Brown told a story this week about last summer when the Pistons informally gathered as a team in Las Vegas while Summer League played out and, during a meeting, Brown was seated next to Griffin.

“I was like, ‘I can’t believe I’m next to Blake right now,’ ” he said.

Connect the dots. Guys like Brown see Griffin carrying out Casey’s marching orders with enthusiasm and unquestioningly follow suit. Griffin told his own story this week, about how he came to refine his view of leadership. It happened early in his career through a conversation with a guy he looked at the way Brown and others now view him, Tim Duncan.

“One thing he said that stuck out to me, long story short, it doesn’t necessarily matter how you do it,” Griffin recalled. “You don’t have to be the guy that beats your chest or yells the loudest or talks the most in the huddle. Being a leader is at the end of the game that guy that everybody looks at and like, yeah, we’re following that guy. I’m not like the most talkative person. I don’t have a way with words like some guys do. But knowing and hearing those words then and trying to do that and find my own way and now being able to do that and feel like you’re being somewhat effective is a little more rewarding, for sure.”

Griffin didn’t flex his leadership last season, arriving as he did in the middle of winter with his head spinning from an out-of-nowhere trade from the only NBA home he’d ever known, the Los Angeles Clippers. But Stan Van Gundy fully predicted it would happen this season and it became evident before training camp convened, starting with that summer gathering in Las Vegas.

Griffin’s leadership – less the rah-rah, more the action over words – is the kind that resonates most anyway, surely with Pistons fans. Griffin drew plenty of roars this season, starting early with the 50 points he dropped on Philadelphia in an October win. But the last roar he heard – after fouling out with seven minutes left in the Game 4 loss to end the season – was the most meaningful.

Casey and Griffin have talked all season about their full understanding of Pistons fans’ skepticism. We have to earn their trust, they said – by the way, another example of Griffin reinforcing Casey’s words and buttressing his credibility inside and out of the locker room. They’ve also spoken of their respect for the knowledge of Pistons fans who’ve seen two title eras and know the qualities required of NBA champions.

They saw those qualities in Griffin this season, never more clearly than gutting out those final two games on a bulky leg brace while not giving an inch in a matchup with an MVP candidate for the NBA’s winningest team.

So if there’s a reason why Griffin’s knee decided Game 75 was the time to act up, maybe it’s this: It put his leadership front and center, cementing his standing among teammates and fully exposing it to an awakening fan base, eager to embrace a third great era of Pistons basketball. The standing ovation that sent Blake Griffin into the summer was fitting symbolism for the realization of first-season goals for the Dwane Casey era.

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