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Griffin had a season-low five points in just 18 minutes, as he labored on a sore left knee. The Detroit News

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Detroit — They can rest when they're dead.

And after dancing around the funeral pyre for a good long while Tuesday night, maybe now the Pistons understand what their coach is talking about when he tells them that.

Dwane Casey has tried any number of ways to explain what the stakes are here. But with the playoffs beckoning these last few weeks, his team kept buckling. Tuesday, the Pistons did it again and very nearly sent their season up in smoke.

Facing a comically depleted Memphis Grizzlies squad that’s busy counting ping-pong balls ahead of the NBA draft lottery, the Pistons had to rally from a 22-point second-half deficit to keep control of their own postseason fate.

It was the largest comeback of the season for the Pistons, who rallied from 21 down to beat Chicago a month ago and erased a 19-point deficit to beat Toronto earlier this season. It was also their most frantic and exhausting, with their best player, Blake Griffin, seated on the bench with a towel over his head and their owner, Tom Gores, sitting courtside with clenched fists for the regular-season home finale.

Casey used only six players in the fourth quarter as the Pistons outscored the Grizzlies, 36-14, and half of them weren’t his starters. 

“We got how many months this summer to rest? Now’s not the time,” Casey explained afterward, when someone noted the season now hinges on a dog-tired team playing the second game of a back-to-back on the road tonight in New York.

He smiled, then added, “What’s the old saying? You don’t get tired till that bear that’s chasing you gets tired? That’s what we say in Kentucky: You don’t stop running until the bear stops running.”

That he was able to smile, or even laugh, seemed remarkable given the long faces that headed to the Pistons’ locker room at halftime, however.

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The Pistons overcame a 22-point first-half deficit and rallied to take a 100-93 win, to keep their playoff hopes alive. Rod Beard, The Detroit News

“Unbelievable” was the word Casey used to describe his team’s dismal start Tuesday. Or at least that’s the one he used in front of the cameras afterward. Whatever was said in the locker room with the Pistons trailing by 19 at the half — “We’re gonna keep that in the family,” the coach said — it’s a safe bet there was some harsher language used.

 “I don’t know if it was playoff jitters, tightness, pressure of the moment,” Casey said. “Whatever it was, it wasn’t us.”

But it was, though, and it still might be.

The Pistons boarded their flight to New York late Tuesday night still unsure of their destination this season. Charlotte’s win in Cleveland on Tuesday meant the Pistons need a win over the last-place Knicks at Madison Square Garden — or a Hornets loss at home against Orlando — to make the playoffs.

They’ll likely need to do so without much of a contribution — or maybe any — from their best player, Griffin, who was so limited by his injured left knee that he played just 3 minutes in the second half and finished with five points.

“I just wasn’t able to help us tonight,” Griffin said, “and we’ll just take it day-by-day.”

This day nearly turned into a nightmare, though.

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Drummond had 20 points, 17 rebounds, five steals and three blocks as the Pistons kept their playoff hopes alive. Rod Beard, The Detroit News

The Grizzlies’ starting lineup for Game 81 looked more like a G-League offering: Delon Wright, Justin Holiday, Bruno Cabocio and two guys named Tyler. The most recognizable name in a Memphis uniform Tuesday might’ve been Chandler Parsons. And yet Casey was adamant in his pregame media session that the Pistons couldn’t — and wouldn’t — think that way.

“We’ve got to treat it like they’re a top team in the league,” he said. “We can’t approach it any different. We can’t look across and say, ‘Well, who is this?’”

No, but the fans sure could. And some did, I’m guessing, as they watched the Grizzlies shoot nearly 74 percent from the field in the first quarter, building a double-digit lead on the Pistons. It only got worse from there, just as it had Sunday when Casey’s team spotted Charlotte a 23-point lead with a horrendous second-quarter effort. And with the home team looking rather lifeless as halftime approached, the boos rained down from the crowd at Little Caesars Arena.

Audience discord

“I heard 'em booing,” Casey said. “And I understand it. We deserved it. We deserved it the way we played in the first half. We deserved it. I deserved it. Everybody deserved it. They have the right to do that.”

He then added with a smile, “But don’t hurt your ankles getting back up on the bandwagon.”

No worries there, I’d say. Plenty of good seats available on that bandwagon. (The Pistons averaged nearly 1,000 fewer fans per game this season, and ranked last in the NBA in attendance as a percentage of capacity.) And the bandwagon's not exactly picking up speed, either, what with a chunk of the fan base openly — and understandably — criticizing the franchise’s unwillingness to tank.

Even if this team does find its way into the playoffs this week — for only the second time in a decade — there won’t be much optimism it’ll play out much differently than it did a few years ago when Detroit was quickly swept out of the playoffs by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Pistons rank just 21st in the NBA in offensive rating this season, thanks mostly to a six-week stretch from late January to early March that got them back in the playoff hunt. And over the last 15 games, Casey’s team is dead-last in effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage. In short, the offense often stinks. And now with Griffin hobbled — Casey sat him the final 1½ quarters Tuesday — the notion this team will be anything more than cannon fodder for a team like Milwaukee in the first round seems like wishful thinking.

But as Casey reminded his players again after this, now’s the not the time to think about that. Or anything else, for that matter.

“When you’re playing desperate,” he said, “you don’t have time to think.”

He’ll find out soon enough how well his team remembers that.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/JohnNiyo

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