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Griffin has missed the Pistons' last three games and with just four remaining in the regular season, his sore left knee is a big concern. Rod Beard, The Detroit News

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Auburn Hills — While the Pistons have struggled without Blake Griffin in the last three games, what they have missed has been more than just one thing. Beyond the scoring, the ball-handling and the leadership, it’s just his presence.

Teams have to defend the Pistons differently with Griffin in the lineup and make him their primary focus; without him, they don’t have to double-team or slant their defense to one side of the court.

In essence, he settles things down and brings normalcy to the Pistons’ lineup, where Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson and Wayne Ellington can shine in their roles. 

“It creates a pecking order. Reggie doesn’t have to handle it every time down the floor; you have another ballhandler, pick-and-roll guy, decision-maker on the other side of the floor,” coach Dwane Casey said Thursday. “There are so many variables and factors that happen when he’s on the floor. It’s almost like a hub. When you take that hub out, we’re trying to figure it out with the starting unit.”

The Pistons (39-39) have lost two of the last three games that Griffin has missed, including a 108-89 loss to the Indiana Pacers on Thursday night, the second defeat in as many games to the Pacers.

They have struggled offensively, managing only 15 points in the first quarter. Griffin is the leading scorer but when he’s out, it puts a greater onus on Jackson and Ellington to take on the scoring load.

Griffin’s status for Friday’s matchup against the Thunder still is unclear. He still is experiencing some pain in his sore left knee and putting him back in the lineup before he’s ready seems too risky this late in the season.

“He’s still day-to-day and going through rehab and he’ll be re-evaluated (Friday),” Casey said. “If he can go, each game is important to get his conditioning back. I don’t know if you can go out and look at any game and say he can get hurt — anybody can. There’s always a greater possibility of getting injury. If he’s ready to go, we’ll play.”

With four games left, the Pistons are in sixth, with a half-game lead over the Nets and Magic, but only a game ahead of the ninth-place Heat. That makes four teams vying for three spots, so one of them is going to be left out of the mix.

In Casey’s first season, the goal always has been to get back to the postseason and exorcise the playoff drought, with only one appearance in the past decade. The Pistons likely need to win two more games to assure a playoff spot, but with the Griffin injury, it seems farther away than it was even a week ago. 

The bigger objective is to create a winning culture for a team that has struggled to even muster a winning record in recent seasons.

“It’s part of the process of getting back twice in a decade. We want to build a foundation; we don’t just want to ease in. our future goal is to be one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference,” Casey said. “Our goal is to get in that conversation, but it’s a step at a time. The overused word 'process' is something I’m going to use. I know we’ve taken a big step of getting toward there this year. How we continue to take those steps and start running is our goal for the future.

“You don’t want to feel like it’s a whole world on your shoulders and not go out and play. The key is playing, going out and competing and going to play. We can’t tighten up; just play basketball.”

Kennard on mend

Luke Kennard, who was doubtful for Wednesday’s game because of a sore right foot, played in the game, and Casey said it’s progressing positively toward Kennard playing again on Friday.

“Luke came through good. I was impressed with the way he came in and he set one of the best screens of his career and got an open 3-pointer out of it,” Casey said. “There’s no soreness and there are some things we’re going to do with his shoes to help him with the soreness. At this time of year, there’s nobody who’s 100 percent — there’s something that’s bothering them.”

Pistons at Thunder

Tipoff: 8 p.m. Friday, Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City

TV/radio: FSD/97.1 FM

Outlook: The Pistons (39-39) have lost two straight, and with Blake Griffin (sore knee) still listed as questionable, their playoff fortune is in question. The Thunder (45-33) have lost seven of their last 10 and are seventh in the West.

Rod.Beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard

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