Zaza’s big tip helps Pistons survive Drummond scare and nab a critical win over Heat

Blake Griffin came up one assist shy of a triple-double as the Pistons hung on to beat Miami on a night Andre Drummond and Ish Smith left with first-quarter injuries
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

DETROIT – The Pistons are quite adept – best in the NBA, in fact – at playing volleyball off of their backboard to score off of missed shots. But that’s wholly owing to Andre Drummond’s presence – the best offensive rebounder of his generation and several others, too – and his presence was, uh, absent for the final 41 minutes of a game that might wind up determining their playoff fates.

But Zaza Pachulia, who returned from an eight-game injury absence only two nights ago, was present. And in the right place. And doing a thoroughly credible Drummond impersonation.

When Blake Griffin missed a driving layup, got the rebound but missed again, then missed a tip, it was Pachulia muscling his way for the rebound and tip to put the Pistons ahead by three points with 27 seconds to play.

“That was huge,” Griffin – who came up one assist shy of a triple-double, finishing with 32 points and 11 rebounds – exhaled after the 98-93 win as the Pistons improved to 20-24 and took a step closer to Miami, 21-22. “I tricked off about two, three easy ones right there and he just takes up so much space, so strong, so dependable for us. Whether it’s a rebound or a deflection or whatever it is, he always comes up big. And that was big.”

Those were Pachulia’s only points, but one game after returning from an eight-game injury absence he played a season-high 28 minutes and grabbed nine rebounds, including four off the offensive glass, to go with two assists and two steals.

“A huge tip that basically kind of helped seal the game for us,” Dwane Casey said. “He’s an old pro. He stabilized us.”

The Pistons needed stabilizing after a 12-point third quarter that saw a 14-point halftime lead turn into a four-point deficit to start the fourth quarter. And with Drummond out – a “nasal injury” on the injury report – and Jon Leuer unavailable due to illness, Casey was down to only Pachulia and Griffin as big men.

That meant Griffin playing center when Pachulia sat and Stanley Johnson getting plenty of run at power forward. Johnson came through with 12 points, six rebounds, two assists and a steal in 23 minutes and his end-to-end rush – converting a defensive rebound into a layup through traffic – to tie the game at 72 with 8:40 left was cited as a jolt the Pistons needed.

“I thought we had one stop that got us going again,” Casey said, “and I thought that got us juiced up.”

“Long rebound, Stanley went all the way,” Griffin said. “He played really well tonight, played free. Getting that stop to turn into getting a layup turned into getting another stop and turned into Stanley having the confidence to come down and drill a three. I think it’s always defensively when we’re struggling offensively like that.”

Johnson wasn’t the only player off of Casey’s bench to put his imprint on the game in the fourth quarter. Reggie Bullock scored seven straight points late and finished with 19. Luke Kennard scored eight of his 22 points in the quarter, Casey and teammates thrilled that he played with an aggression reflected in his 17 shot attempts.

“He’s so good when he plays like that,” Griffin said. “His patience in pick and rolls, just his ability to score the ball in so many different spots – from three, off the dribble, catch and shoot, mid-range pull-ups, little floaters, up and unders, fakes. He’s got a lot of stuff to his game.”

“I think Luke is showing he’s going to be a dynamic wing in this league,” Casey said. “He hit some big shots. We’ve got to continue to do that and be consistent with it.”

Kennard’s all-around offensive skill set suggests he’s the player most likely to emerge as a critical piece alongside the Griffin-Drummond core. It’s a matter of shifting gears mentally to carry himself like the dangerous and multifaceted scorer he should be.

“That’s what they’ve been preaching to me, just over and over again,” he said. “I keep saying, just the mindset of being aggressive and being who I am. You get open shots when you play hard, when you play fast. I think that has been helping me out a little bit.”

Drummond wasn’t the only key absence the Pistons endured. Ish Smith – one game after returning after 19 games missed with a torn right adductor muscle – played less than two minutes of the first quarter before beelining it to the locker room with tightness in the same area. Casey said Smith is day to day, though the best guess is that the Pistons will hold him out of Saturday’s game with Sacramento as a precaution.

Drummond will be re-evaluated in the morning but hasn’t been ruled out, so a night that could have been disastrous – losing two key players and maybe a game against one of the teams they’re battling for a playoff spot – turned out much better than that.

“It was a big win,” Casey said. “It was a street fight. We knew it was going to be that. You know that every time you play a Miami team.”

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