Beard: Pistons are hot, but are they for real?

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
Pistons' Blake Griffin, right, looks for room around Warriors' Jordan Bell during Saturday's game.

Detroit — Life has its certainties and the story rarely changes: Luke Skywalker always destroys the Death Star. The Roadrunner always escapes Wile E. Coyote. Rocky always is going to make a furious comeback in the fight.

The plot can take twists and turns, but the end result always is the same.

Detroit sports fans have seen this movie before: The Pistons get off to a hot start and look like a playoff team for the first part of the season, only to wither and miss the postseason. It’s been the narrative for the past few years — most recently last season, when they opened with a 14-6 record and became a national storyline, only to fizzle and miss the playoffs for the second straight year.

With a five-game win streak, including Saturday’s 111-102 victory over the Golden State Warriors, the Pistons have an opportunity to change the story. There’s plenty of room for growth, as seen by the array of blue and gold jerseys rooting for the two-time defending-champion Warriors at Little Caesars Arena.

Some of them exchanged their fandom for the Pistons bandwagon.

“It was a great crowd; I’m excited that everyone wanted to come out,” coach Dwane Casey said. “Guys are earning their trust with their hard play and their defensive effort.”

More: Pistons counter Warriors' Big 3 with team approach

Many fans are on the precipice of believing, but still are wary from their disappointment after buying into the hype with Michigan football and the Lions this fall. The Pistons can fill that void if they continue to play well but the next two months will be telling, with mostly winning teams on the schedule in December and a difficult western trip awaiting in January.

The biggest reason to believe this time is the play of Blake Griffin, who’s putting up All-Star numbers: 24.9 points, 9.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists, while hitting 36 percent on 3-pointers. After getting acclimated to the team in the second half of last season, Griffin has assumed the mantle of lead dog on the sled — and the Pistons are ready to follow his example.

Griffin is taking the reins at the ends of games, forcing other teams to double-team him, which opens lanes and shots for others. What’s making it work is that his teammates trust Griffin’s decision-making.  

“It doesn’t really matter — he’s going to make a play. He’s done it in every way,” said Stanley Johnson, who had 19 points against the Warriors. “The attention he gets at the ends of games, it gives us open looks. I’ve never played with a guy like this in my career before.

“He demands winning and demands excellence out of us and out of himself and it’s easy to follow a guy who’s working that hard.”

It’s not just Griffin, though. It’s the resurgence of Johnson, who had struggled with the starting group, but is playing some of the best basketball of his career with the reserves, posting 12.6 points, 4.5 rebounds and hitting 36 percent on 3-pointers in his last 11 games.

The reserve group has been buoyed by the play of Ish Smith and Langston Galloway, who was a roster afterthought, following his struggles last season under Stan Van Gundy.

The new attitude is led by Casey, who is focusing on instilling winning habits in a group that’s made the playoffs just once in the past decade. It’s a similar transformation to what Casey did in Toronto, but this Pistons group has more talent — and it’s showing.

Casey has established clearly-defined roles for each player and everyone is playing within that role, doing the best they can to realize that potential.

“It’s so important that guys are understanding their roles, that guys are playing their roles and accepting that role, embracing it and being the MVP in their role,” Casey said. “It’s understanding that it is a team game — it’s not about one player.

“Everybody’s got to do their job, whether it’s screening, spacing, passing the ball, defending, whatever it is. Just make sure you do your job on each possession. When we win, everybody wins and when everybody plays their role and stays in their lane.”

Five observations

The Monday Drive highlights five observations from the Pistons’ recent surge:

► 1. Moving Johnson to the bench is a bit deceptive, given that Casey doesn’t hesitate to use him in the closing minutes. It means a different role for Glenn Robinson III, whose shooting and versatility still melds well with Griffin and Andre Drummond. Johnson’s defense still is a big asset.

► 2. The Pistons aren’t going to rush Luke Kennard. He had a good outing with the Grand Rapids Drive, with 27 points on Friday, but Casey likely will wait until Kennard has had a full-contact practice with the Pistons before Casey eases him back into the lineup. Even when he’s ready to return, Kennard will have a tough time fighting his way back for minutes.

► 3. Rookie Bruce Brown had a tough time guarding the Rockets’ James Harden and faced another challenge in Steph Curry, who returned after an 11-game injury absence. Brown held his own, given the opposition and showed that he can be a strong defensive option off the bench.

► 4. Drummond’s free-throw woes have returned. He’s 4-of-22 from the line in his last four games, after shooting 55 percent in his first 16 games. His attempts are not even close, veering to the left, which could mean there are mechanical issues he’ll have to address in practice.

► 5. Reggie Jackson looks to have his mojo back, at 16.3 points and 34 percent on 3-pointers. He’s adjusted to not having the ball in his hands as much and acting more as a shooter than facilitator. Against the Warriors, he looked to have his burst back off the dribble, which could bode well for him as defenders adjust to his 3-point shooting.

Pistons vs. Thunder

Tipoff: 7 p.m. Monday, Little Caesars Arena

TV/radio: FSD, NBATV/97.1 FM

Outlook: The Thunder (14-7) have won six of their last eight games and are getting a boost from Dennis Schroder (16.8 points, 4.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists). It’ll be the third game in four nights for the Pistons (13-7).

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard