'This is first step': Pistons clobber Knicks to clinch playoff spot, face Bucks
New York — After a close call on Tuesday night, the Pistons made it a bit easier in the regular-season finale.
And for the first time since 2016, the regular-season finale isn’t the season finale.
The Pistons are returning to the playoffs after a three-year hiatus, following an easy 115-89 victory over the Knicks on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.
With the win, the Pistons clinched the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference and will open the playoffs at top-seeded Milwaukee this weekend. The Bucks swept the season series, 4-0, including a pair of 23-point wins.
For the Pistons, the point was getting there, and they didn’t have to empty the tank — instead they emptied the bench in the second half and never trailed against the Knicks.
Luke Kennard had 27 points — one off his career high — and Reggie Jackson 21 points and seven assists. Andre Drummond added 20 points and 18 rebounds for the Pistons (41-41), playing without Blake Griffin, who rested his sore left knee after playing just 18 minutes on Tuesday.
It’s unclear whether Griffin will be available for the playoff series but that is an afterthought — the Pistons and first-year coach Dwane Casey achieved their goal of making the postseason.
“This is the first step, for us to get in the playoffs,” Casey said. “Our young guys need to experience it, to understand the level of intensity and what it takes to get in there and make some noise.”
The Pistons got off to a quick start, with two baskets from Drummond and a 3-pointer by Jackson. After two baskets by Mitchell Robinson (11 points), the Knicks (17-65) cut the lead to 10-6, but the Pistons responded with an 8-0 run, with two more baskets by Drummond.
They were able to pull away after that, with another 7-0 run midway through the period and a 7-0 run near the end, with a three-point play by Jackson, a drive by Langston Galloway and a putback dunk by Drummond.
After falling behind by 22 points to Memphis, the Pistons didn’t want to take any chances with a win they needed to clinch a playoff spot.
“You can’t take any game lightly. It’s the NBA — everybody’s good,” Kennard said. “We knew we needed to come out with a little more energy, a little more fight, a little more competitiveness tonight.
“The message before the game was to really put together a full 48 minutes from the start. I thought we did that, so credit to our starters for getting us going early.”
The Pistons had a 36-22 lead after the first before Kennard entered and bowled over the Knicks’ upset hopes like a tank, with the first 17 points of the second quarter. That was a 17-10 run by Kennard, followed by two baskets from Drummond and two free throws from Thon Maker, for a 59-32 lead at the 3:27 mark.
From there, the Pistons cruised and rested their starters in the fourth quarter.
“Luke played big-time. It’s been a season of growth,” Casey said. “A season of growth for Andre, a season of growth for Luke. They did a heck of a job working and developing and listening to the coaches.”
► Kennard looks to have found the rhythm on his shot again. He scored the Pistons’ first 17 points of the third quarter and got on a roll, with three 3-pointers in his first four field goals of the period. He finished with two free throws at the 1:11 mark and went 6-of-8 from the field, including 2-of-4 from beyond the arc in the first half.
► Jackson got off to a good start in the first quarter, with 14 of his 21 points and added four rebounds and seven assists. He was under control and ran the offense effectively. He’ll have a bigger onus to lead the Pistons if Griffin can’t play and his play on the offensive end will be under the microscope.
► Maker started at power forward and played some at center when the Pistons went with a smaller lineup. Casey pointed out the need to diversify the lineups and put some of the players in different positions to see how they might respond in a playoff situation. Casey used four guards with Drummond in Tuesday’s win and hinted at some additional tweaks.
► Wayne Ellington had been trying to find his shooting stroke again in the past couple games and got back on track, going 4-of-8 from beyond the arc. Ellington had established a good chemistry with Griffin, but without him, it’s been hot and cold, including good games against the Pacers.
► Former Piston Henry Ellenson faced his former team for the first time, after being released at the trade deadline so the Pistons could make room for Ellington on the roster. Ellenson finished with 12 points and four rebounds. He had been having a decent showing with the Knicks with more playing time.