Legend of Thon expands as Pistons pull out a win to take sting out of Griffin ejection
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
ATLANTA – Thon Maker’s had an eventful first four games for the Pistons. One game left a mark on him – five stitches inside his upper lip – and in another he left a mark on it. You could call it Maker’s Mark, though that might risk copyright infringement, so let’s call the game-winning triple in Friday’s 125-122 win over Atlanta Maker’s mark, lower case, instead.
Coming back in the second half after taking that nasty gash to the mouth earned Maker honorary entrance into the Bad Boy’s Club. Hitting game-winning shots might have earned him an approving nod for another legend of Pistons lore, Mr. Big Shot.
“I don’t know,” he demurred, exuding the sort of team-first aura that has so quickly endured Maker to Dwane Casey and his teammates. “We’re trying to make the playoffs. That’s the biggest focus. We shouldn’t have been in that position in the first place. This was a big win, a satisfying win, but we’ve got to move on against Miami on a short turnaround.”
Why Maker was on the floor with the game tied and 29 seconds left after Hawks rookie Trae Young missed a runner with Bruce Brown breathing down his neck almost got overshadowed by what he did to win the game.
But it was the first thing on Casey’s mind in his postgame press conference.
“When you have your best player taken out of the game by two questionable technicals …,” Casey said, hardly looking like an exuberant winner of a game that moves the Pistons one game clear of Miami – Saturday’s opponent – for the last playoff spot in the East. “I have never seen that in my coaching career – a young man going to pick a ball up, he’s excited about making a shot and he gets a technical. Two – and thrown out of the game.”
Those two calls at each end of the court came less than a minute apart midway through the third quarter with the Pistons – trailing by 15 midway through the second quarter – having surged to an 11-point lead.
The first came when Griffin tried to wrest the ball away from Dewayne Dedmon after a Hawks turnover, trying to get the ball inbounded. Instead of a Hawks delay of game – players can’t hand on to the basketball as Dedmon did – Griffin got hit with a technical. Likely still emotionally charged 38 seconds and two possessions later after draining a triple near the Atlanta bench, Griffin looked stunned when a whistle stopped play and referee Dedric Taylor T’d him up again and sent him to the showers.
“Not really a whole lot to say about that,” Griffin said. “I think the tape pretty much speaks for itself. I shouldn’t have been back here. … I’ve gotten a lot of techs that I’ve deserved. Those two tonight, I don’t know about those.”
Between Griffin’s ejection and Maker’s unlikely heroics, two extraordinary performances – and a number of other notable ones – were overshadowed.
Reggie Jackson scored a season-high 32 points to go with eight assists and zero turnovers, numbers put up by only Joe Dumars and Chauncey Billups, the aforementioned Mr. Big Shot, in Pistons history. The last assist was dazzling – getting around a Hawks double team after being pinned on the left sideline, driving to the baseline and spotting Maker, who hit the triple with 17 seconds remaining.
And Andre Drummond recorded his 10th 20-20 game of the season, finishing with 26 points and 21 rebounds to go with five steals.
Drummond and Jackson each made big plays to set up Maker’s exultant finish when it looked bleak for the Pistons. Dedmon’s basket with 1:53 left put Atlanta ahead 120-115. But Jackson answered with a three-point play. Drummond pulled the Pistons within two a second time, after a Young basket, and then intercepted a Young lob intended for John Collins and made two clutch free throws to tie the game with 44 seconds left.
“We just did a good job of staying collected,” Griffin said. “Over the course of the season, we’ve been in this position so many times and hopefully some of that experience is starting to pay off. It started with our leaders, Dre and Reggie, (who) were our rocks down the stretch and made things tough. And then Thon, being ready to go. He takes that shot every day.
“It was fun to watch. It was tough to watch, but it was fun to watch that happen.”
Brown played a big part in the win, too. Even though Young was often spectacular, finishing with 30 points and 10 assists, Brown hounded him. He fought through two screens to make the runner that preceded Maker’s triple a tough shot and contested Young’s 32-footer to tie on the final possession.
And Jon Leuer – like Maker, getting fourth-quarter minutes only because Griffin was unavailable – hit his first triple since April 2017 in the fourth quarter.
“Jon has been a pro,” Casey said. “Jon’s had a good week of practice and it carried over in tonight’s game. It says a lot about his character and what he brings to the table. He’s just a very high-character guy.”
Without their All-Star, the Pistons needed all of those contributions, big and small, from the top of their roster to the bottom of it. On a night the Hawks hit 20 triples – four more than the Pistons had allowed in any game – and were handed momentum just as the Pistons had appeared to seize control, they needed all they could get to squeeze out a win they couldn’t afford to leave without.