‘We’re fighters’ – Pistons overcome Griffin’s absence, next stop playoffs
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NEW YORK – The Pistons don’t want to make a habit of playing without Blake Griffin, but overcoming a 19-point halftime deficit without his help to beat Memphis on Tuesday made Wednesday’s must-have win over the Knicks a walk in Central Park.
The no-drama victory – the Pistons led by 14 after a quarter, 24 by halftime and as many as 40 eventually – clinched a playoff berth in Dwane Casey’s first season. Orlando’s win over Charlotte meant the Pistons finished as the No. 8 seed in the East and will open the playoffs at Milwaukee, which compiled the best record in the NBA.
“I think last night helped us,” Casey said after the 115-89 win allowed the Pistons to finish at 41-41. “Playing without Blake gave our guys confidence and understand what we had to do and how we had to do it. Going through what we went through last night, I said at halftime, ‘We were in the same position against Memphis and we came back. So guess what they’re talking about in their locker room?’ And our guys did not relax. Didn’t let up. Came out in the second half all business in what we had to do.”
Griffin’s status for the playoffs is uncertain, but the Pistons probably can’t anticipate having him at least early in the series. That will spread the onus of replacing the breadth of his contributions up and down the roster – on Reggie Jackson, who’ll have the ball in his hands more often; on Andre Drummond, who has strung together the best basketball of his career over the season’s second half; and on the cohort of 3-point shooters, led by Wayne Ellington, Luke Kennard and Langston Galloway.
Kennard a week ago was dealing with his own injury issues, a sore right foot that affected his play. But he played brilliantly on Wednesday, scoring the Pistons’ first 17 points of the second quarter when they blew the game open and finishing one off his career high with 27.
“Feels great. Credit to the entire team all season,” Kennard said. “We hit some adversity – win streaks, losing streaks. We stuck together. We trusted each other. Trusted the coaching staff. And we were able to get in. It’s a great accomplishment, but we’re not done yet.”
However the playoffs unfold, qualifying for the postseason – and doing it through the adversity of losing their All-Star and winning two backs-to-the-wall games without him – will bear fruit in their organization’s future, a mantra Casey has been preaching since before training camp.
“These last seven days and the next seven days, two weeks, whatever it is we’re going through against Milwaukee, is a great learning experience – a great experience,” Casey said. “Our goal this year was to get there. We shot ourselves in the foot enough throughout the season to put ourselves in a position where we had to earn it in game 82. There’s no magic wand. It’s growth, development. This summer is a big summer for us. And this next week’s a big week for us in the playoffs.”
Drummond finished with 20 points and 18 rebounds before joining the rest of the starters in taking the fourth quarter off. It was his 41st game this season with at least 15 points and 15 rebounds. It was his manic defense that lit the fuse in Tuesday’s second-half comeback.
“The energy we played with in that second half (against Memphis), that’s the team that we are,” he said. “I don’t know what happened or what took so long. Maybe it was me. Maybe I had to start and get our engine going earlier. But we sustained that and played a hell of a game today.”
Pistons owner Tom Gores, watching the game at courtside, saw the game as the first step he and Casey viewed as critical to spurring the franchise’s growth.
“We’re fighters,” he said. “I believe in this team. Dwane and I have been talking about the idea of no limits. And now we’re in the playoffs. But we’re not done.”
They’ll be decided underdogs against the powerful Bucks, led by MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo, an even more daunting matchup challenge given Griffin’s uncertainty. But the journey was its own reward for a franchise yearning to re-establish itself on the NBA landscape.
“It’s a great first step for our organization and for our fans,” Casey said. “They’re used to great basketball. We’re not where we want to be, but we’re not where we were.”