If the Pistons didn’t know what they were missing while Blake Griffin sat out the previous three games, they got a not-so-subtle reminder.
Griffin, who had been out because of a sore left knee, made the Pistons’ first basket — a 3-pointer — and with it, set the tone for the rest of the game. He finished with a career-best nine 3-pointers, surpassing his previous high of six.
He needed more help, though.
Griffin had 44 of his 45 points through the first three quarters, and the Pistons turned a one-point deficit entering the fourth into a 123-110 loss on Friday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
The loss drops the Pistons (39-40) into a tie for seventh with the Brooklyn Nets in the East playoff race, but the Nets have the head-to-head tiebreaker, meaning the Pistons are in eighth, just a game ahead of the Miami Heat, who also lost on Friday.
The Orlando Magic, who mauled the Atlanta Hawks, vaulted into sixth, a half-game ahead of the Pistons. The Pistons next face the Charlotte Hornets, who are two games behind, on Sunday at Little Caesars Arena.
Griffin shot 9-of-14 from 3-point range, 11-of-20 from the field and 14-of-16 from the free-throw line, in his first game back from the knee injury. Because he was connecting from outside, he didn’t have to do as much in the paint, but when he did, the Thunder (46-33) couldn’t match up.
“He played well. He came back and he was the Blake that we all know. It was great to give him some rest,” said Reggie Jackson, who had 10 points. “He came back and played aggressive. It was good to see him going well; the rest of us have to pick it up behind him.”
Andre Drummond was in foul trouble early in the second quarter and the Pistons suffered without him in the middle, as the Thunder surged to a 59-32 rebounding advantage, including 21-4 on the offensive end.
Drummond struggled to get going, with a tough matchup against Steven Adams, on the boards. Drummond managed just four points — on 2-of-3 field goals — in 27 minutes and was not much of a factor on either end of the floor.
“We’d love to have him out there. He’s the best rebounder in the league, especially when he puts his mind to it,” Jackson said. “Not having him for a long stretch was difficult.”
The Pistons trailed, 97-96, entering the fourth, after a pair of free throws by Ish Smith (12 points). They sputtered from there, starting 1-of-11 from the field in the fourth, with just a jumper from Smith to show in the first 7:18 of the period.
“Our offense went south a little bit and we couldn’t make buckets in the fourth quarter,” coach Dwane Casey told reporters. “I loved our grit and fight for three quarters, but our rebounding has to come back to us and we have to do a better job of turning, fighting and going to get it.”
Oklahoma City got big contributions from Dennis Schroder (14 points), who had six points in the opening 18-5 run. Paul George, who had 30 points, was the standout and Russell Westbrook (19 points, eight rebounds and 15 assists) filled in the blanks.
Griffin’s 45 points were the third-highest total of his career, along with the 45 he scored against the Suns on Dec. 8, 2014 when he was with the Clippers. His activity boded well for how much he might be able to contribute in the last three games.
“I kept asking if he was OK. We cut his stints and minutes down to give him rest and he was good, which was good,” Casey said. “No issues at all with his knee and that was a good thing.”
►Griffin’s 31 points in the first half tied the Pistons’ franchise record, set by Grant Hill on Feb. 8, 1999 against Washington and tied by Jackson on Nov. 8, 2015, against Portland. Griffin had six 3-pointers in the first half, which tied his career high — and he surpassed it in the second half, with the seventh at the 10:18 mark. He added two more before the start of the fourth.
►The two big men were in foul trouble early, which affected the pace of the game. Steven Adams (14 points) got his second foul at the 8:20 mark of the first quarter and picked up the third at 5:58, going to the bench for the rest of the first half. Drummond was called for his third foul at 9:05 of the second quarter and was done for the remainder off the half. That opened the middle for more drives — and for the Thunder, it meant more points in the paint, with a 38-20 advantage in points in the paint.
►Drummond picked up a technical foul in the second quarter after he was called for his third personal foul. Drummond was unhappy with the call by official Scott Wall and after he got back to the bench, Drummond said something to Wall, which led to the technical. It’s Drummond’s 14th technical foul this season, which is two from the NBA limit, which would come with a one-game suspension.
►Zaza Pachulia took a hard foul at the hands of Westbrook, who was in the air and made contact with Pachulia’s face. Officials reviewed the play and assessed Westbrook a flagrant-1 foul. Pachulia made both free throws but Westbrook avoided the more serious flagrant-2 call, which would have been an ejection as well.
►Westbrook ensured that he will average a triple-double for the third straight season. He showed the entire repertoire, with six assists in the first quarter but more than that, he set up his teammates to score and be more balanced, which the Pistons weren’t able to do.