Auburn Hills — Reggie Jackson was relieved. After scoring in single digits in three subpar games, Jackson seemed to have turned a corner, with seven of his 17 points coming in the fourth quarter.
The Pistons held on in the final minute to beat the New Orleans Pelicans Jan. 23 and although they ended their two-game losing streak, all was not well. Jackson had his best game in more than three weeks and being in a giddy mood, he wandered over to where teammate Blake Griffin was doing a postgame television interview, unaware of what was being said.
“Our lack of focus at the end of games has been awful. That’s why we lose games like this,” Griffin told Fox Sports Detroit’s Mickey York. “I’m happy with the win, but I’m not necessarily happy with how we closed this game out.”
In the pantheon of bad timing, Jackson’s faux pas — interrupting the interview and mugging for the camera — was comically bad. Though unintentional, it served as ocular proof that the Pistons weren’t on the same page, on or off the court. Some viewed the encounter as the low point of the Pistons’ season.
In reality, it could turn out to be where the tide started to turn. It’s already an inflection point, as the Pistons have gone 11-5 since Jan. 23 and Jackson’s numbers have skyrocketed: 19.4 points, 5 assists and 47 percent on 3-pointers and 50 percent from the field in those 16 games.
It seemingly all points back to the postgame interview in New Orleans. While social media sizzled white-hot with the clips of Griffin’s interview, the prevailing perception was that Griffin and Jackson weren’t getting along.
The looming trade deadline fanned the flames, with rumors that the Pistons were looking to move Jackson and the Pistons were sinking, at five games below .500.
Griffin thought something needed to be done, so he had a short talk with Jackson to clear the air — and ensure there wasn’t any animosity on either side. With 35 games left on the schedule, they still had time to turn things around but needed to play better to make a playoff run.
“I was pissed in general and he knew that,” Griffin told The Detroit News. “Since I’ve been here, I’ve tried to hold everybody probably to a higher standard than needs to be, because I know what it takes to build that foundation of where we want to go. That’s all that is.
“I hold myself to that same standard — probably higher.”
Jackson appreciated the sentiment and said he didn’t feel the need to apologize or explain himself. It was just poor timing.
“We’re both grown adults and he knows that I wasn’t trying to steal the show, just having fun,” Jackson said. “He’s a very intelligent guy and for a second, I could tell his demeanor changed and he was trying to make me feel better. He was trying to help kill that perception with what everybody thought it was.”
There was no team meeting or big to-do about it; Griffin and Jackson just worked it out — and haven’t thought much about it. Since then, the Pistons have been one of the hottest teams in the league, streaking back to .500 and catapulting into the No. 6 spot in the East in the past six weeks.
Working as one
Coach Dwane Casey doesn’t point to one particular reason for the Pistons’ renaissance but thinks they’ve channeled the energy from the incident into a positive.
“Adversity should help. As for whatever (the talk) was, I don’t want to make a big deal out of it. Sometimes when you go through adversity, it’s good for guys to talk it out, more so than a coach,” Casey said. “You’re going to have those differences and misunderstandings or come to an understanding. That’s what helps make chemistry for your team.”
The chemistry is there. While the Pistons had been predominantly dependent on Griffin’s isolation plays on offense in the first chunk of the season, Jackson’s ascendance has opened opportunities in the pick-and-roll and his 3-point shooting has been among the league’s best in the recent stretch.
It’s resulted in winning on the court and Jackson becoming a true third member of a triumvirate that is pushing the Pistons toward the playoffs.
The biggest difference isn’t the talk with Griffin — it’s Jackson’s health. After missing most of the summer workouts and being limited in training camp, Jackson is just starting to hit his full stride — at the right time.
“I said earlier in the year that it’s going to take Reggie a lot of the season because he was off half of last year, all summer and missed training camp,” Casey said. “It’s taken him a while and he’s coming around now to getting his sea legs. Arnie (Kander) and the medical staff have done a good job of getting him back.
“I predicted that around January or February (he’d be there) and learning to get to play with Blake off the ball a little bit — and that’s a big change.”
Jackson said he’s just starting to feel like he did when he was completely healthy. Injuries in the previous two seasons have decimated his production — and the Pistons’ fortunes.
“I haven’t felt like myself in years in terms of explosion. I was trying to figure out different ways (to score),” Jackson said. “Ultimately, it’s probably made me better because of it, not having my explosion. It was something that was frustrating, annoying and difficult, especially because I wanted to be out there and be healthy for my guys.
“I know these past few years, I felt like we were still a playoff team; it’s just health and chemistry. I know a big part is my health; I wish I could have been healthy. There was some truth in what people were saying — I just didn’t have the same explosion or same attack numbers.
“In terms of having my burst, I was more aware than anybody else who was watching. I had to try to lie to myself and tell myself it was good and continue to be aggressive. I was trying to hit certain gaps and after a while, it wasn’t working, and I had to change my game and figure out ways to be effective.”
In the first 46 games of the season, Jackson’s numbers were pedestrian: 14.1 points, 4.1 assists, 34 percent on 3-pointers and 40 percent on field goals. Count Andre Drummond among the happiest to see his pick-and-roll partner back near full strength.
“(Expletive) yeah, it’s good to have him back,” Drummond said. “During December, you saw spurts of him being himself again. He just needed some time to get back to himself and build that confidence and see what works for him. Once he did, he’s doing great.”
It might not be the major cause for their turnaround, but the initial talk between Jackson and Griffin further opened their lines of communication. It was the precursor for more talks — before almost every game.
“We (initially) talked more about us at the end of games. It wasn’t him or anybody being singled out. It was just that we have to be better,” Griffin said. “Now, before every game, I constantly talk to him about being aggressive and I’m here on this side. It’s you and (Drummond) in pick-and-roll.
“If you need me, go be aggressive first. Exhaust all your options, then it’s me.”
After their talk and getting the Pistons back on track, the options seem endless.
Pistons vs. Timberwolves
Tip-off: 7 Wednesday, Little Caesars Arena
Outlook: The Pistons (31-31) are in a playoff push after winning 10 of their last 13 games, including five straight at home. The Timberwolves (29-34) have lost three straight and have one of the worst road records (9-24) in the Western Conference.