No breathing room, but Pistons pull out a win in Griffin’s debut

Blake Griffin scored 24 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and dished out five assists in his Pistons debut as they beat Memphis
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

DETROIT – Blake Griffin’s offense put the Pistons in position to win the game. His defense got the save.

With Memphis star Marc Gasol carrying his undermanned team and Andre Drummond saddled with five fouls, Stan Van Gundy sat Drummond and used Griffin at center over the final three minutes of the 104-102 win.

Memphis, which began the fourth quarter by hitting 8 of 10 shots, missed its last 10. Gasol hit a pair of free throws with 3:09 to play when Griffin fouled him to tie the game at 98, but he missed his last three shots including one with about 15 seconds left when Griffin forced a very difficult mid-range attempt. Anthony Tolliver wound up taking a jump ball with 10 seconds to go and the Pistons hung on.

“He’s pretty good defensively,” Van Gundy said. “I thought he had some great defensive possessions down the stretch – great block, two great possessions against Gasol. He can move his feet; he’s strong as hell. He’s good. He’s better defensively than what he’s given credit for.”

The offense wasn’t bad either. Griffin finished with 24 points, 10 boards and five – could have, should have been more – assists. He shot six of his 13 free throws in the first six minutes, setting the tone on a night the Pistons would take 37 foul shots to Memphis’ 14.

And he did all of that off of one measly morning shootaround. Griffin’s first game with the Pistons preceded his first practice, which comes Friday. He’s looking forward to having a few more plays in his arsenal.

“It’s going to take (Van Gundy) and I sitting down and watching film together,” Griffin said. “I got the ball a ton tonight, so I’m not worried about that. We’ve just got to be more efficient in our sets. And having more than five plays – or, really, four plays – to run will be nice.”

“I think that just sort of scratched the surface. I really do,” Van Gundy said. “Twenty-four, 10, five assists. I don’t know if the numbers will always be that, but I didn’t have a really good framework in for him to work out. He was just having to create stuff on his own. I think maybe we can help him a little bit more than we did tonight.”

Van Gundy saw other scoring chances for Griffin that his teammates missed simply because they’re unaccustomed to looking for a player in the spots where Griffin can set up to great effect. And he felt they didn’t make the best use of Griffin for the stretch run after he returned with seven minutes left and the Pistons trailing 91-89.

“Until very late in the game, we didn’t really get the ball in his hands enough in the fourth quarter,” he said. “That’s why you have those guys is to ride them in that stretch. I’ll take a lot of the blame for that. We haven’t done a good job in our hour and 15 minutes of building that framework yet.”

Griffin did have the ball on virtually every possession once Drummond sat, though, and it was his setup that created the game-winning shot: Anthony Tolliver’s triple with 1:49 to play to put the Pistons ahead 101-100. On the next two possessions, he made equally impressive feeds to produce open threes for Reggie Bullock and Tolliver, each missing on a night the Pistons hit just 7 of 25 from the arc.

“He’s a willing passer and a great passer,” Tolliver said. “As a shooter, I can’t really ask for much more. Whenever you have a guy who demands a lot of attention and he’s willing to make a pass and is not going to force it, it’s like a dream for a guy like me. He’s a special player. He’s going to be great for us.”

Bullock, who played with Griffin when he broke into the NBA with the Clippers, wasn’t surprised to see him battle Gasol at the defensive end, either.

“He’s one of the strongest guys in the league,” he said. “He’ll be able to hold his own, but with his size and physicality that he brings to the game it’s easy for him to switch on to bigger guys.”

Griffin reiterated his sentiments voiced Wednesday at his introductory press conference regarding his appreciation for the passion of Pistons fans, experienced firsthand for the first time while wearing their jersey.

“They were awesome,” he said. “The fans here, for the Pistons and sports in general, are incredible. You could feel the energy tonight and that was a big boost for us, big boost for me.”

Tolliver took a minute before the game to pull Griffin and Drummond together and give them his perspective on how they should approach their union.

“When you have two super dynamic players that have never played with each other before, sometimes there’s a tendency to defer. ‘Let me make sure I get out of his way.’ I just told them both, hey, just be aggressive, play your game, do what you normally do and you guys will figure it out. We’ll all figure out.”

It wasn’t a straight-line path to victory, but they got there, winning a game they needed to bank in the win column if they hope to be in shape to sprint to the finish line once Reggie Jackson returns from injury.

“I think we need to get healthy,” Griffin said. “We’ve missed Reggie in a big way. He’s so talented. I look at this as they’ve been building a foundation and we’re adding to that. I’m very excited about the future – this season especially, but the future in general. We’ve got a high ceiling with this group.”

FAST BREAKDOWN

Three quick observations from Monday night’s 111-91 win over the Portland Trail Blazers at Little Caesars Arena

1-BACK TO .500 – Didn’t take long for the Pistons to get back to .500. Less than a week after trading for Blake Griffin, they got there. Their fourth straight win was built on defense and ball movement. A 14-2 run that started midway through the third quarter gave the Pistons at 18-point lead with three minutes left in the quarter. Portland sliced its deficit to 12 entering the fourth quarter. But the Pistons bumped it back to 17 with 8:31 to play against a Blazers team that lost on Super Bowl Sunday at Boston and it never got tight after that. The Pistons recorded a season high with 36 assists as six players recorded at least four assists. Andre Drummond, coming off an Eastern Conference Player of the Week performance, finished with 17 points, 17 rebounds, five assists and three blocked shots before exiting the game with six minutes to play. Griffin added 21 points, nine rebounds and six assists. The Pistons held Portland 13 points below its season average

2-SHUTDOWN D – Portland’s dynamic scoring backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum came in averaging a combined 47.1 points a game, second only to Golden State’s Steph Curry and Klay Thompson (47.8). With Avery Bradley no longer available to blanket one or the other, the Pistons appeared vulnerable to an assault on that front. But Lillard and McCollum were held to just 34 points and a comboined 14 of 32 shooting. Stanley Johnson opened the game guarding McCollum, who shot 6 of 15 and finished with 14 points and just one assist. When Johnson re-entered the game in the second quarter he got matched up with Lillard, who finished with 20 points on 8 of 17 shooting. McCollum and Lillard combined to make only three 3-point shots. Ish Smith, Langston Galloway and Reggie Bullock all had a hand in individual defense on Portland’s backcourt pair, but another key factor was the suffocating pick-and-roll defense played by Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin.

3-DIFFERENT GAME – The Pistons carried a four-game winning streak into the game against Portland over the past two seasons and they scored at least 120 points in each of the four games. But the Trail Blazers, despite minimal roster changes, went from a bottom-10 defense last season to a top-10 defense this year. The flip side is that even though the Pistons won all four meetings the previous two seasons, Portland averaged 118.5 points in last year’s two losses, though there were a total of three overtime periods played in the two games. The rout meant that the two Pistons two-way players – Kay Felder and Reggie Hearn – made their debuts. Hearn hit his first shot, a triple.

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