Hugs end in a hurry as Blake’s return turns into a grudge match; Nets hang on to beat Pistons by 2

The Pistons rolled out the red carpet for Blake Griffin’s return – then littered it with banana peels and thumb tacks.

The high fives and hugs quickly turned to pointed elbows and rib shots in a chippy game that featured more free throw attempts (81 total, 47 for the Pistons) than baskets (70), 57 fouls, five technical fouls and an ejection for rambunctious rookie Isaiah Stewart for his first-half altercation with Griffin.

“You can’t be baited into a situation like that,” Dwane Casey said. “Understand your opponent, understand what they want to do and how they want to play and not get baited. It’s a great learning experience for him, unfortunately.”

Asked about Griffin’s impact on the game, Casey declined: “To talk about somebody else’s player, I’m not going to do that.”

Griffin entered the game late in the first quarter, got a video tribute and a polite round of applause from the 750 fans allowed in the arena under pandemic protocol – and after that, the niceties were set aside. In addition to his set-to with Stewart, he and another Pistons rookie, Saddiq Bey, bumped shoulders aggressively after Bey blew past Griffin in the fourth quarter and Griffin responded by pulling him back from the waist for a foul.

“They stood in and this is what this year is about – those guys growing,” Casey said of the fight shown by his rookies and others. “Our guys fought through it. Saddiq almost got his shoulder pulled out of his socket and I thought he handled himself well.”

“It’s the NBA. Guys get physical and guys like to compete,” said Frank Jackson, who gave the Pistons a huge fourth-quarter spark. “That’s just the game of basketball. Everyone who ever comes in here against their previous team, they want to make a statement. It was just guys competing and getting after it.”

Griffin made a solid contribution to Brooklyn’s victory with 17 points in 20 minutes, but it had the fingerprints of James Harden all over it. The former MVP, who played 42 minutes and all of the second half until fouling out with six seconds left, finished with 44 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists.

The Pistons looked cooked after a 10-0 Brooklyn run early in the fourth quarter snapped an 82-all tie, but Frank Jackson – who sat for three quarters, coming on to start the fourth quarter after Josh Jackson got hit with his fifth foul late in the third quarter – combusted for 14 points, hitting 3 of 4 from the 3-point line and draining three free throws when he was fouled attempting a fifth triple.

The recast second unit – augmented by the addition of two debuting Pistons, recent trade acquisitions Corey Joseph and Hamidou Diallo – has all of the attributes the Pistons crave in areas of toughness, length and athleticism but lack the 3-point threat fundamental to Casey’s offense. So Casey turned to Frank Jackson and, presto, the Pistons got back in the game in a heartbeat.

“We had trouble making shots,” Casey said. “Wayne (Ellington, nine points, 1 of 5 from the 3-point line) had an off night. Saddiq was the only one making threes. They were forcing Jerami (Grant, 19 points to lead the Pistons) into a crowd. I just knew it had to be Frank. He’s one of those guys that doesn’t take long to get going from the 3-point line.”

“Just being in the league for the last couple of years, just staying ready,” Jackson said of his ability to heat up after being put on ice for three quarters. “You never know when your opportunity is going to come.”

The other newcomer, Joseph, had a chance to take the game to overtime after Bey’s steal of an inbounds pass intended for Griffin with 3.3 seconds remaining. Casey called timeout and set up a play to exploit Brooklyn’s intent to take away the 3-point line. Joseph drove down the left side of the lane and had a layup attempt to tie but it rimmed out at the buzzer.

“I had a good look at it,” Joseph said. “He was trailing me. Probably should have taken a quick layup like I did a couple of plays before, but felt him on my back. He made a good play not to foul. I just missed it.”

“We got a great look at the basket at the end,” Casey said. “At this time next year, when we go through those same situations we’ll execute like we’ve been there before.”