Beard: Pistons' hot start doesn't look to be a fluke
Auburn Hills — Blake Griffin grabbed the final rebound of the game Tuesday night and grasped the ball, as if he were ready to put it in his trophy case. It was a muted celebration; nonetheless, it was the biggest celebration the Pistons have shown in their yeomanlike 4-0 start to the season.
Griffin has been at the forefront, with his career-best 50-point performance against the Philadelphia 76ers, the toughest of the four wins. The Pistons are one of just four remaining undefeated NBA teams, joining the Raptors, Bucks and Pelicans.
The Pistons, though, after missing the playoffs the last two years, aren’t getting the national play that some of the other teams are — which is fine with coach Dwane Casey.
“That’s all right. We have a lot of improvement to go — 4-0 is good; we’ll take it — but we’re not satisfied. We know as we saw in a lot of our film; there’s so many things,” Casey said Friday. “You improve in one area and another area shows itself. We all are learning and growing and getting better and finding ways to win.
“That’s very important at this stage of the season. You don’t want to get into a 0-4 hole and be learning and developing and getting better and trying to win at the same time. That’s a difficult way to go.”
Casey has been the source of many of the changes that have turned things around in the early part of the season for the Pistons. With essentially the same roster as last season’s 39-43 squad, he’s revamped the offense and put Blake Griffin as the hub of their offense and surrounded him with 3-point shooters.
Here’s how the Pistons have gotten off to their hot start:
■ 1. The big mismatch: A healthy Blake Griffin has wreaked havoc on the first four opponents, but none more than his onslaught against the Sixers. The Pistons actively are seeking out defensive mismatches — and whenever they saw Dario Saric or Joel Embiid against Griffin, they isolated and exploited that matchup. The same happened against the Cavs.
With his mix of ball-handling skills and size and agility in the post, Griffin has had his way, posting gaudy numbers along the way: 33.8 points, 11 rebounds and 5 assists, while hitting 65 percent (15-of-23) on 3-pointers. It’s a small sample size, but it’s a new wrinkle that teams will have to adjust to.
Even when the Cavs tried to double-team Griffin to get the ball out his hands, he found the open man, often for an easy basket.
“Blake is a great passer, so he made the right plays and we scored the basketball,” Andre Drummond said. “We’ll probably see (the double-teams) a lot so he’s a very willing passer — and a very good passer at that — so it’s going to open up the floor for everybody.”
■ 2. The Jackson Three: With Griffin’s ascendance, Casey also has changed Jackson’s role in the offense. In previous years, Jackson initiated the offense and handle the ball most of the time at the top of the key, running a majority of high pick-and-roll plays with Drummond.
For the most part, Jackson has been taken off the ball and is a spot-up shooter, loading up on the weak side to get easier looks after Griffin breaks down the defense and exposes open shooters. That’s where Jackson has excelled this season, shooting 40 percent (12-of-30) beyond the arc, where he has taken more than half of his shot attempts.
Jackson is averaging 7.5 3-pointers per game, which is twice as many as last season, and making three a game. Moreover, he’s taking fewer 2-point attempts and becoming a better and more efficient shooter overall. Jackson still is getting used to the new role, but the early signs are positive.
■ 3. Flexing the lineup: In some smaller lineups, Ish Smith handles the offense, using his speed to speed up the pace and utilize his advantage. Smith is posting a career-best 14.3 points and shooting a career-high 53 percent (8-of-15) on 3-pointers. Rather than worry about wing depth and 3-point shooting from that group, Casey is relying more on three-guard tandems to ensure the offensive rhythm.
While Kennard is out for a few weeks because of a shoulder sprain, the lineup mixing will continue, with rookies Bruce Brown and Khyri Thomas likely getting a shot, along with Glenn Robinson III.
Pistons vs. Celtics
Tipoff: 7 Saturday, Little Caesars Arena
Outlook: The Pistons are off to their best start in a decade and play the first of two straight against the Celtics (3-2), who have the league’s stingiest defense, allowing just 97.8 points per game.