Wojo: Griffin sparkles, makes immediate impact with Pistons

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Blake Griffin finished with 24 points and 10 rebounds in his Pistons debut on Thursday.

Detroit — One player won’t turn everything, not right away, maybe not fully. But one player can turn heads, and Blake Griffin certainly, immediately does that.

Pistons fans are turning their lonely eyes to him, and upon initial impression, oh, he’ll be worth watching. In the wild closing minutes Thursday night, Griffin was in the middle of everything, diving on the floor, defending, clapping, raising his arms to the crowd.

As debuts go, it was a window into all Griffin can offer, with the physical feistiness the fans here have craved. The Pistons hung on for a 104-102 victory over Memphis, and for a midseason exercise against a mediocre opponent, it felt like it was worth a bit more.

There was Griffin blocking a shot, then racing down the floor and drawing a foul, hitting two free throws for a 98-96 lead. There he was dribbling through trouble and slipping a pass to Anthony Tolliver, who nailed a 3-pointer for a 101-100 lead. And there Griffin was on a late possession, in the face of Memphis center Marc Gasol, helping force a shot-clock violation.

Stan Van Gundy smiled afterward and said his acquisition, who’d barely practiced an hour with his new team, “just sort of scratched the surface.” If this is scratching, it’s hard to imagine what full-bore hammering will look like.

Griffin finished with a team-high 24 points and 10 rebounds, and operated well alongside his new towering partner. Andre Drummond had 14 points and 15 rebounds, and despite foul trouble, took a team-high 15 shots, so you can already see where the focus of the team is shifting.

From outside to inside, from offense to defense, Griffin flashed the full array. At the end, it was a rare scene in Little Caesars Arena, as the fans stood and roared, and Griffin egged them on.

“There was a lot of adrenalin,” Griffin said. “The energy was awesome.”

In the NBA, if you’re not charting a path to contention  and few teams are  you’d better not be dull. The Pistons still aren’t on a championship path, but they’re now considerably less dull.

Detroit twin towers

Griffin was introduced first Thursday night and received a nice, half-standing ovation. Then he introduced himself, powering to the basket, displaying creativity with the ball and strength in the low post. In a one-minute span of the second quarter, he showed why the Pistons surrendered their top two scorers  Avery Bradley and Tobias Harris  and more to land the five-time All-Star.

First, he started a fastbreak with a behind-the-back dribble, drove the lane, then lobbed a pass to Drummond, who dunked. The crowd of 17,481 was on its feet, and moments later, it erupted again as Griffin flashed the other element, draining a 3-pointer.

The Pistons have been largely ignored for nearly a decade, and at some point, that has to change. This bold new plan created by the blockbuster deal is a start, although fraught with danger and some dissent. The Pistons are defying odds and trends, spending big on two big guys, Griffin and Drummond, going for frontcourt bulk in a league of backcourt stars. Van Gundy determined they had no other choice, and it’s not like the previous way was stirring up much.

Griffin is worth the gamble, even if he’s a star in stature, not in championship accomplishment. He’s one of only five players averaging at least 22 points, seven rebounds and five assists, joining LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins. He’s only 28, and he might be the most-celebrated, unexpected newcomer to Detroit sports since, when? Perhaps since the Tigers signed Prince Fielder in 2012, or traded for David Price in 2014.

“It is a fresh start,” Van Gundy said before the game. “It doesn’t really feel like opening night, but it’s a fresh start. And I think our guys feel that, and feel good about that.”

It’s a restart, for sure, and it has to help the sometimes-moribund atmosphere at Little Caesars Arena. The place was transformed before the game began, as the red seats were turned blue by free T-shirts welcoming Griffin. We’ll see if the trade has deeper transformative powers.

The hope is, as Griffin has expanded his game, he can help expand Drummond’s. The 6-11 Drummond is still only 24, a first-time All-Star, and no longer the most-valuable investment on the team. He shouldn’t view this as a challenge to his standing, but as an enhancement, and the early reaction is encouraging.

After the Pistons beat Cleveland to snap an eight-game losing streak the other night, Drummond sounded like a guy eager to have a 6-10 running mate. Griffin echoed those sentiments, and showed he’s a willing passer (five assists) and a vocal communicator.

Bringing the love

“Playing with Andre is a blast,” Griffin said. “I think by his standards, he’d say he didn’t play that great of a game, but look at his numbers  it’s unreal. … The biggest thing was, I didn’t want him to feel like he had to get out of my way, we just gotta come in and play. We’ll figure it out. Our chemistry will get better and better.”

Right on cue, Drummond shouted across the locker room, “I’m your biggest fan, Blake! Love you!” The two laughed and kept bantering, a chummy cap to the night.

Drummond’s foul trouble somewhat limited their interaction, but Griffin’s presence was felt almost every time he was on the floor. Dare I say, he even got the occasional NBA star treatment on foul calls from the refs?

That’s another unspoken benefit, which wasn’t lost on the long-starless Pistons, as Griffin went to the free-throw line 13 times, hitting 11. Van Gundy said the team had been hunting a superior talent for a while, and Griffin’s new teammates welcomed the addition. We won’t be able to fully assess the dynamics until Reggie Jackson returns from his sprained ankle in a couple weeks, but without Bradley and Harris, others are assuming larger roles.

Stanley Johnson looks like he might benefit the most. He scored a career-high 26 points against Cleveland, and tallied 14 against the Grizzlies.

“I’m a huge fan of Blake Griffin,” Johnson said the other night. “He’s a guy that I think is a one-in-a-million athlete, and you have him paired with another one-in-a-million athlete in Andre. Now it’s like, let’s abuse this thing.”

Sounds like a plan, although an unorthodox one. The Pistons  and Detroit sports in general  have been hungering for a shiny new star. There’s been a lack of head-turners and game-changers around here, and Griffin clearly has a chance to be both.