Detroit — Dwane Casey delivered it as directly and succinctly as possible.
“We’re not where we want to be,” he said, “but we’re not where we were.”
That’s the perfect summation of the playoff-bound Pistons, with one addendum: Not where they want to be (legitimate contenders), not where they were (less than mediocre), still unsure where they’re going.
Let’s not make this more dramatic than it is. The Pistons (41-41) are in the playoffs for the first time in three years, and that’s nice. Detroit finally will have some postseason action — by the calendar, the first time since the Lions lost to the Seahawks on Jan. 7, 2017 — and Little Caesars Arena will get to host a professional playoff game. Fans might even enjoy it, because the pressure for the Pistons was to get in, not to advance.
The reality is, they’re huge underdogs against No. 1 seed Milwaukee. Their star, Blake Griffin, is hobbled by a sore left knee and might be severely limited. The Bucks clobbered them four times this season by an average margin of 15 and boast the possible league MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo, the wow-heavy, vowel-heavy Greek Freak.
The Pistons are back in the playoffs, but face a tall task against the top-seeded Bucks this weekend. The Detroit News
A 'first step'
Some will call this progress for the Pistons, and by the standings, it is. Progress also would be to win a single playoff game for the first time since 2008. But real progress is difficult to measure, and the Pistons can’t be duped by sneaking in as the No. 8 seed in an abysmal Eastern Conference. They won the last two games to avert an embarrassing collapse.
They don’t have much to lose now, as long as they don’t get blown out four straight times. They didn’t tank to get better draft lottery odds, which was honorable, but they haven’t done enough to ensure they’re headed in the right direction with the current core.
“Happy to have the first step for our organization,” said Casey, in his first season here. “We’re still in the growth process. I’ve been through the rebuilding stuff, and we’re ahead of the curve. Our young guys get to experience the playoffs, to understand the level of intensity and what it takes to get there and make some noise.”
Hey, we’re willing to listen. But the Pistons have sent so many conflicting (even maddening) messages with their sometimes lethargic, sometimes inspired play, it’s hard to expect anything different now. That’s not to downplay a playoff appearance for a franchise that desperately needs to stir the masses. Owner Tom Gores has remained steadfast (stubborn?) in the plan, but while the immediate work begins Sunday in Milwaukee, the real work must be done in the offseason.
Griffin, 30, just crafted one of the best seasons of his career, but could carry the team only so far. Andre Drummond just set a career high in points and led the NBA averaging 15.6 rebounds, but still must find a consistent effort level. Same with Reggie Jackson, who epitomizes the Pistons’ streakiness.
The organization’s current path under Gores, senior adviser Ed Stefanski and Casey should remain flexible, with major roster changes still possible.
“The last seven days and the next seven days, the next two weeks, will be a great learning experience,” Casey said. “Our goal this year was to get there. We shot ourselves in the foot enough, we had to earn it in game 82. It’s not a magic wand, it’s growth, it’s development. This summer is big for us, and this next week is big for us.”
It’s especially big for Jackson, who will enter the final year of his contract next season. It’s big for a young guy like Thon Maker, who has shown energy and shot-blocking skill since being acquired from Milwaukee in February. Maker’s role will increase dramatically if Griffin remains slowed.
It’s big for Ish Smith, the veteran guard who has been a terrific sparkplug and is in the final year of his contract. It’s a big postseason for Luke Kennard, the second-year guard who’s finding his shot (39.4 percent on 3-pointers) and his way.
“We have a good team, I really believe that,” Kennard said. “Obviously Blake is really important, he’s our go-to guy, he’s our leader, so having him out there would be a plus. It gives us confidence knowing when we get our best player back, it’ll take us to another level.”
Griffin has been superb, on the court and off, and is trying to stay positive, while missing four of the last seven games. His situation is problematic, because if he plays with reduced mobility, it stalls an offense that relies heavily on him. Casey called his availability “day to day,” and Griffin was on the bench in street clothes for the finale in New York, hugging his teammates afterward.
It’s an unfortunate turn, and it requires others to show what they can do.
“It’s tough when you put the team on your back the whole year and not be able to finish it off,” Smith said. “So it’s our duty, our job, to go out there and give 110 percent. It’s a tough situation because we run so much stuff through BG.”
Griffin has remade himself as an outside shooter and facilitator and averaged a career-best 24.5 points per game. There is time to rest, with the Pistons playing Sunday and Wednesday in Milwaukee, then in Detroit on Saturday and Monday.
Will there be a Game 5 back in Milwaukee? My guess is no, because the Bucks have the best record in the league (60-22) and are dominant enough to sweep, although the franchise hasn’t won a playoff series since 2001. Again, no one’s peddling false hope here. The last time the Pistons made the playoffs, with Drummond and Jackson, they battled the Cavaliers tough in 2016 but were swept by the eventual champs.
That seemed like a precursor to a resurgence under Stan Van Gundy, but Jackson got injured and pieces fell apart. Casey’s record suggests he’s more capable of building and sustaining, and he’s done a fine job this season. He talks with deep-voiced wisdom and calm, and is trying to instill it in his team.
“Getting into the playoffs, we can talk about it, we can promote it, we can wish it, but it’s not easy,” said Casey, who reached the playoffs five of his seven seasons in Toronto. “And it takes a special approach, a special attitude, a special togetherness, to get there. I feel it’s just like in the other place I used to coach, the jitters, a tightness you can’t explain. You gotta have an even keel, and the only way you can get it is through experience.”
Not where they want to be, not where they need to be, better than they’ve been. For this to really mean something, we’ll need to see more.
Pistons vs. Bucks
Game 1: Pistons at Bucks, Sunday, 7 p.m. (FSD Plus, 97.1 FM)
Game 2: Pistons at Bucks, Wednesday, 8 p.m. (FSD, 950 AM)
Game 3: Bucks at Pistons, April 20, 8 p.m. (FSD, 97.1 FM)
Game 4: Bucks at Pistons, April 22, 8 p.m. (FSD, 950 AM)
* Game 5: Pistons at Bucks, April 24
* Game 6: Bucks at Pistons, April 26
* Game 7: Pistons at Bucks, April 28
* - if necessary