Niyo: Griffin's star turn might herald new era for Pistons

John Niyo
The Detroit News
The Pistons' Zaza Pachulia and Reggie Bullock celebrate with Blake Griffin after he completed a three-point play to give the Pistons a one-point lead with 1.8 second left in the game. Griffin had a career high 50 points, The Pistons defeated the 76ers 133-132 in OT, Tuesday, October 23, 2018 at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, Michigan.

Detroit — The play call belonged to Dwane Casey. But the read was Blake Griffin’s to make. And that was the only logical call on a night like this, when a star was shining bright. Brighter than any we’ve seen in a Pistons uniform in years.

So when Griffin took the inbounds pass from Reggie Bullock with only 5.6 seconds left on the clock in a wild overtime thriller against the Philadelphia 76ers, there really was only choice that made sense.

Griffin palmed the basketball, faked a handoff to Bullock racing across the top of the key, and then split a pair of confused defenders — Joel Embiid and Amir Johnson — driving toward the basket. He rose up to draw contact from Robert Covington, and then scooped in the layup before crashing to the floor, rolling over and slamming the stanchion under the basket in celebration as the whistle blew.

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The game was tied at 132 in overtime, only 1.8 seconds remained on the clock, and the game was now fully in his hands. Yet as Griffin stood at the free-throw line, with the crowd at Little Caesars Arena on its feet chanting, “M-V-P! M-V-P!” there was one thought bouncing around the back of his head.

“I had to make up for missing six straight free throws in the beginning of the game,” Griffin said, smiling. “I don’t think I’ve ever done that.”

He made the last, though, and after Embiid’s desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer bounced hard off the heel of the rim, the Pistons bench erupting along with the fans as the final buzzer sounded, Griffin had done something else for the first time.

That final three-point play gave him the first 50-point game of his career — his previous best was 47 — and in a nationally-televised game against a top Eastern Conference team, it served as a reminder. Not just to fans in Detroit who’d forgotten what it meant to have a player like this on the home team’s roster. But also to the rest of the league that had started to wonder if Griffin -- the former No. 1 overall pick and four-time All-NBA selection — still was capable of something like this, after seasons marred by injuries and a midseason trade from Los Angeles last winter only months after the Clippers had signed him to a $171 million contract extension.

“You know, the past 2-3 years, all I hear is how bad I am,” Griffin admitted Tuesday night, after most of his teammates had already left the arena. “And, you know, I’ve been hurt. I’ve had bad games. I haven’t even played the way I have (in the past.)”

Next level

But as he kept telling everyone last month during training camp and preseason, his first healthy summer in three years had done wonders for him. Instead of training just “to get healthy to be able to play,” this offseason the 29-year-old Griffin was able to work on his game as well.

“And I’ve always been a big believer in hard work pays off,” he said.

So far, so good. Through three games, Griffin’s leading the league in scoring (36.3 ppg) and averaging 11.3 rebounds and 5.7 assists, while committing just two turnovers in 119 minutes.

“He’s just one of those guys that is taking it to another level, leading his team, putting them on his back, being a leader,” said Casey, whose Pistons (3-0) are one of only five undefeated NBA teams a week into this young season. “But that’s what we expect from Blake, because he is that good of a player.”

Just how good, Casey’s really just discovering for himself, though. Before the season, I asked him what he’d learned about Griffin since getting a chance to work with him in Detroit after years of coaching against him while in Dallas and Toronto. And the thing that jumped out at him, he said, was the basketball IQ coupled with his versatility.

“He’s a true point forward,” Casey said, “and that’s what I didn’t realize just knowing him through the league. You think he’s just a power guy down low, always.”

No solution

Not anymore, he’s not. And after working hard to expand his game, adding a 3-point shot last season, he’s now looks like a matchup nightmare for entirely different reasons. Griffin’s 11-for-18 from 3-point range through three games — hitting five in each of the last two games — which allowed Casey to use him in a variety of ways Tuesday, exploiting pick-and-roll matchups against a 76ers team that was playing without injured All-Star guard Ben Simmons.

“We couldn’t find a solution for him,” said forward Dario Saric, who started the game guarding Griffin, spelled eventually by Covington and Johnson and Embiid. “We tried to do everything, but sometimes we can’t, you know?”

Sure, we know, but it’s only a vague familiarity for Pistons fans after the last — lost? — decade of Deeee-troit basketball here. Griffin’s 50-point night was only the seventh in franchise history, and the first since Rip Hamilton scored 51 in a triple-OT game in December 2006. The last time a Pistons player hit the half-century mark in front of the home crowd was Kelly Tripucka (56 points) in 1983. So, yes, it has been a minute since Detroit has had a player with shoulders quite like this.

“He carried us the whole first half,” laughed guard Ish Smith, who provided a big spark in the second half and finished 21 points himself, including a big 3-pointer early in overtime — off an assist from Griffin, of course. “And it was heavy.”

But just the same, there’s a lighter mood around this team, even in the clutch. And that was evident again Tuesday night, as the Pistons kept taking punches and countering right up until the final bell. Even when Redick hit that fall-away three and drew the foul to put the Sixers up by two with 5.6 seconds left.

“It starts with believing,” Griffin said. “Like today, we believed this whole game. I never saw a moment where, like, ‘All right, well, we tried.’ There wasn’t a moment where I saw … a lot of times last year where guys were kind of defeated. Everybody stayed positive — and that’s huge.”

That’s a reflection of Casey, certainly — “If your head coach don’t panic, the troops won’t panic,” Smith said —- and something I noted after the opening-night escape from Brooklyn.

But it’s also a confidence — and a cachet — that Griffin brings, which is something Isiah Thomas was talking about during halftime of the NBA TV broadcast, seated next to Grant Hill — another guy who used to do the heavy lifting in Detroit.  

“Not only is he playing well, but I think he’s giving the Pistons just a little bit more confidence and more oomph,” Thomas said of Griffin. “And not just the team. I think other teams are looking at the Pistons — now with Blake walking into the arena — with a little bit more respect.”

The fans who balked the trade — and the contract — last winter might be looking at things a bit differently now, too, judging by those “M-V-P!” chants. Griffin heard them, he said, and praised the rowdy fans that showed up Tuesday, “You appreciate the love from the crowd. But we’ve got a lot of work to do. And a lot of games left to be played.”

The way he’s playing, though, “He has been special,” Smith said. “It’s a long season, but I don’t see him slowing down. I don’t see us slowing down, either.” JohnNiyo