Detroit — Before the shooting started, Dwane Casey wanted everyone to understand the rules of engagement.
The Pistons were getting their All-Star forward, Blake Griffin, back in the lineup Monday night, making his regular-season debut after missing the first 10 games with knee and hamstring problems. Derrick Rose was coming back, too, playing for the first time in 10 days due to a hamstring injury
But that wasn’t even half the battle.
“And that’s one of the messages I gave to the team: We can’t expect for Blake to come back and save the world,” Casey said prior to Monday’s tip-off against Minnesota at Little Caesars Arena. “Everybody still has to do their job, and do their job harder, better, smarter.”
Whether that message was received or not, the Pistons weren’t up to the job in this one.
And while no one expected Griffin’s reintroduction to the wild to go without a hitch — “It’s gonna be a process, getting him back,” Casey promised — the hope was it’d look better than this, even at first glance.
Griffin started well but faltered late Monday, while his team collectively did the opposite in a 120-114 loss the Timberwolves. And while Detroit's leading man finished with a healthy stat line — 19 points, seven rebounds and six assists in 24 minutes — it was a fitful night all around for the Pistons, who were headed to the airport for a late-night flight and a road game in Miami on Tuesday.
“We talked about it before, and we talked about it after — it’s just tough to get into a rhythm,” said Griffin, who played in only two preseason games last month after offseason knee surgery. “We have to use this time as well as we possibly can and figure stuff out. But I’m not discouraged by anything, other than our lack of effort.”
There was that, yes. But first there was a pregame jolt for the hardy crowd that braved the snowy roads Monday. Griffin had made it clear Sunday he’d be back for this one, but a couple hours before tip-off Casey insisted Rose would be a game-time decision. Both were announced as starters, though, much to the fans’ delight.
Then Griffin turned his first touch of the night into a no-look bounce pass to Luke Kennard for a transition layup, and everyone roared. A couple possessions later, Griffin took it straight down the lane and drew a foul, converting both free throws. He drilled his first 3-point attempt less than 4 minutes in, and then added a jump hook posting up Minnesota's Treveon Graham in the lane.
He headed to the bench along with Rose after an abbreviated 5-minute opening stint. But Andre Drummond followed soon after, whistled for a cheap second foul on Karl-Anthony Towns in what quickly became a frustrating night for the Pistons’ big man — a first for him in an individual matchup with Towns that he'd dominated until now.
And that’s when things unraveled, really, as the Timberwolves — a team that couldn’t shoot straight 24 hours earlier in an overtime loss to Denver — went on a 23-8 run to end the quarter. Minnesota, playing its third game in four nights, shot 6-for-45 from 3 on Sunday, but went 8-for-10 from behind the line in the first quarter Monday night.
“They’re the No. 1 scoring team in the NBA in the first quarter, and we played like we didn’t know it,” said Casey, who’d warned his players to no avail. “Some of our rust was there. Blake was rusty, Derrick was rusty, and that was to be expected. But when the second unit comes in, they’ve got to be ready to roll.”
They weren’t on Monday, particularly defensively. And if there’s been a glaring issue for the Pistons thus far in the regular season, that has been it. Their perimeter defense was brutal again Monday, whether it was those early 3s or that final bucket of the first half, when Thon Maker’s close-out on Gorgui Deng — hardly a 3-point threat — led to Deng’s driving two-handed dunk to make it a 15-point halftime lead.
It didn’t help that the team’s two best defenders were on the bench for long stretches, Drummond in foul trouble and Bruce Brown hobbling on a sore knee that limited him to 13 minutes Monday. But that’s not a justification Casey wanted to hear afterward.
And he knows fans — like opponents — aren’t going to have much patience for all the talk about trying to reconstruct a healthy playing rotation, piece by piece and minute by minute. Casey is beyond frustrated with all the injuries and all the minutes restrictions that follow, as any coach in his spot would be. These aren’t the Golden State Warriors we’re talking about here, after all. This is a team that squeaked into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed in the East last spring.
“I know we gotta do it, but it’s very difficult to manage,” Casey said. “It’s tough. I know it’s for their health. … But somehow, some way, we’ve got to get a rhythm.”
To be fair, even without one, the Pistons have been surprisingly efficient offensively thus far, ranked fifth in effective field goal percentage and sixth in assist ratio. Drummond has had a monster start to the season, and the Pistons also lead the league in 3-point shooting percentage, albeit with the third-fewest attempts per game. That’s almost a complete reversal from last season, when Detroit’s struggles with the 3-point shot ran deep the first half of the season.
Defensively, though, they’ve looked lost at times. And in the process, they lost a couple games they shouldn’t have while Griffin was out.
Still, given all the other injuries — first Reggie Jackson, then Rose and even Tim Frazier to complete the point-guard trifecta — they seemed to be treading water, at least, with some younger players taking a step forward and some veterans filling in.
Langston Galloway is playing better now than he did at any point in his first two years in a Pistons uniform. Kennard, meanwhile, has seized an opportunity as an offensive catalyst, building on last year’s strong finish.
In fact, that might’ve been the most encouraging part of Monday’s loss. Casey and his staff spent last season urging Kennard to be more assertive when he’s on the floor. Yet he struggled with that playing alongside high-usage players like Jackson and Griffin.
The last eight games without either of those two in uniform, Kennard averaged 17.1 points, 4.8 assists and nearly 13 shot attempts a night. Monday, he played 40 minutes, went 8-for-17 from the field and finished with a team-high 25 points as well as seven rebounds.
Likewise, Galloway gave the Pistons a lift off the bench, sparking a late rally and scoring 18 points in 24 minutes. But Drummond's struggles — “We need his presence on the floor,” Casey said — coupled with the bench play early, was too much to overcome. Especially as Griffin lamented his own fourth-quarter failings Monday.
“I feel like I never really got into a rhythm, and as a result I feel like I didn’t really contribute down the stretch there,” he said after finishing with one point and two turnovers in eight minutes in the final quarter. “I gotta be better in the fourth quarter, when you’re depended on to take care of the ball and all that.”
Whether all this can be corrected quickly enough probably depends on how patient you are. But the Pistons know they can't afford many more nights like this. They need to get on a roll now. Only two of their next 10 opponents are above .500, and all but one of those games are against Eastern Conference teams.
“We will get it together,” Casey said. “Getting those two guys back in rhythm is not easy. We’ve been playing a certain way, and now we’ve got to find a rhythm again. But we’ll get it done.”