Griffin’s return can’t overcome mistakes as Pistons down to their final shot at Bucks

Blake Griffin scored 27 points upon his return from a left knee injury, but he couldn’t carry the Pistons past Milwaukee in the first playoff game ever at Little Caesars Arena
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

DETROIT – Fans among the 20,000 plus that sold out Little Caesars Arena who recall the Bad Boys or Goin’ to Work teams that won NBA titles probably recognized in Milwaukee the qualities of a championship team on a night the playoffs returned to the city for the first time in 34 years.

The Pistons got a typical game from Blake Griffin – 27 points, seven rebounds, six assists after not playing over the past 10 days with a cranky left knee – but not nearly enough from his teammates. And that’s the way champions win. They rarely allow a complete game, muting enough of their opponents’ strengths and consistently exposing weaknesses.

“Detroit came out, played really well the first quarter, first seven, eight minutes,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “We kind of stuck with what we do. We were able to manage that storm and have a lead at the end of the quarter. Lots of different people stepping up and playing well.”

Bucks MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo was decidedly human, finishing with 14 points and 10 rebounds. In fact, the Pistons outscored Milwaukee by seven points in his 28 minutes. But six other Bucks scored in double figures.

Contrast that with the contributions of Pistons not named Griffin. Nobody struggled more glaringly than Andre Drummond, who hit 2 of 10 shots in the first half and spent most of the third quarter on the bench after picking up his fourth foul two minutes after halftime and getting hit with a fifth less than a minute after re-entering late in the quarter.

“It’s a tough, tough night,” Drummond said. “Offensively, couldn’t get it going. … I think it was more I wanted to make the (big) play instead of making the play and when things like that happen it usually doesn’t end up going your way.”

“Andre missed some bunnies,” Dwane Casey said. “I thought it bothered him a little bit and he carried it down to the other end.”

“He missed some tough ones,” said Griffin, who talked to Drummond in the second quarter when he saw his visible frustration. “He might have just rushed a few here and there. We’ve leaned on the big fella all season long and he’s a big reason why we’re in the playoffs. It’s the playoffs. It’s basketball. It’ll happen to me. It’ll happen to everybody on the other team. It’ll happen to everybody on our team at some point. As teammates, we’re there to pick each other up and help guys out.”

If anything, the Pistons appeared too eager to prove their mettle and win over the most raucous crowd since they moved to Little Caesars Arena. They made a flurry of head-scratching mistakes – closing out too aggressively on 3-point shooters or dribbling into trouble and taking questionable shots.

“We made some uncharacteristic mistakes,” Casey said after the 119-103 loss put Milwaukee up 3-0 in the series. “That’s what the playoffs are about – getting through that, understanding time-score-situation. We had situations where we’d make a mistake or miss a shot, now we go down to the defensive end and not carry out our assignments.”

And then the line that will evoke memories of the championship-era Pistons for those who remember them: “That team is a team that makes you pay for mistakes.”

Drummond, who hit 5 of 14 shots and finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds with half his totals coming in the fourth quarter, was hardly alone in failing to play to his standards. Luke Kennard led the Pistons in scoring in each of the two games at Milwaukee and stayed in the starting lineup even with Griffin returning. But he didn’t take his only 3-point attempt of the game until the fourth quarter and finished with nine points in more than 37 minutes.

Langston Galloway was 1 of 6 from the 3-point arc until a last-minute make and finished with six points in 22 minutes. Ish Smith hit a buzzer-beating three, but was 3 of 12 before that. And on it went.

The Pistons held a five-point lead early, but Ersan Ilyasova came off the bench to hit three 3-pointers in less than three minutes to put Milwaukee ahead. The Bucks led by eight after a quarter before the Pistons pulled to within a point with eight minutes left in the first half. The Bucks answered with a 10-0 run and that was that, pretty much.

“We had a couple of mistakes early on, got down by a little bit, fought our way back and got it to one,” Griffin said. “A couple of breakdowns defensively against a team like that and a six-point lead can stretch to 12 pretty quickly. I guess just didn’t finish the half as well as we wanted to. It was a little bit of them, a little bit of us. That’s kind of how it works.”

Griffin’s return, on top of the anticipation of the first playoff game of any sort at Little Caesars Arena, had the place at a fever pitch early. After missing the playoff-clinching win at New York and then the first two games of the series, he was uncertain to play until testing the knee in pregame warmups. The crowd roared as the video board showed the Pistons huddling under the stands before emerging from the tunnel about 20 minutes before tipoff.

If he wasn’t quite moving with the powerful athleticism that’s marked his time with the Pistons, his presence had an unmistakable impact on the game.

“I felt all right,” he said. “As far as percentages go, I don’t know. That’s not a concern of mine. If I can play, I can play.”

As for whether he can rev it up again for Monday’s Game 4, without benefit of the long rest he carried into Saturday’s play, “our mindset will be to go get a win,” he said. “As for me, we’ll take it day by day, just as we were before.”

When Griffin left the game for good with six minutes left and the Pistons down by 19, it appeared he might have aggravated the injury, though he appeared to be walking without a noticeable limp afterward.

“It scared the heck out of me,” Casey admitted. “That young man has given us everything he has. He said it was feeling good. I thought he came in and gave us what he could. We needed every one of those 27 he gave us. He just has a presence we can’t replace with anybody.”

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