New York — Somewhere around the second or third quarter, the Pistons knew they had done it. With a commanding lead over the New York Knicks on Wednesday night, they were on the precipice of clinching their first playoff spot since 2016.
That was the first domino. There still was the unfinished business of figuring out their opponent, with a slim possibility of moving up to the No. 7 seed and facing the second-seeded Raptors, coach Dwane Casey’s former team.
Some of the Pistons’ staff was keeping tabs, scoreboard-watching online during the Pistons game. The second domino happened, with the Nets topping the Heat. The final one, though, didn’t happen, as the Magic secured seventh place by beating the Heat.
The Pistons (41-41) are the No. 8 seed and will open at the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, who have the NBA’s best record at 60-22, on Sunday in Game 1. That also means a healthy dose of league MVP-favorite Giannis Antetokounmpo and a Bucks team that swept the four-game season series from the Pistons.
It’s an uphill climb for the Pistons, made more difficult by the uncertain status of forward Blake Griffin, who has been slowed the past couple of weeks and missed the regular-season finale because of a sore left knee.
With three more days to rest before the start of the series, Griffin could have a chance to return, depending on the severity of the knee injury. Game 2 is Wednesday, which provides another three days’ rest, which could be a ray of hope for getting Griffin back.
“We’ll see. There’s always uncertainty but these few days will help,” Casey said. Wednesday. “We’ll see where he is at that time.”
The Pistons are back in the playoffs, but face a tall task against the top-seeded Bucks this weekend. The Detroit News
Griffin’s absence would leave a gaping hole in the Pistons’ offensive production and there isn’t a natural alternate choice, with Thon Maker as the likely replacement starter. That puts a dent in the Pistons’ already-slim chances in the series.
Defensively, it’s another blow, as even a healthy Griffin might have been the best defender available to guard Antetokounmpo. Without him, that likely falls to Maker — or a scheme that includes more trapping and simply getting the ball out of Antetokounmpo’s hands.
In the last two games, the Pistons eventually figured out ways to win without Griffin, but that was against an undermanned Memphis squad and a Knicks team looking forward to summer vacation.
“It’s going to be tough if he doesn’t play earlier on, but the guys who do come in and play come in and play hard enough that we do have a chance of winning,” center Andre Drummond said.
Griffin, who was the vocal and on-court leader all season, had to watch from the bench, dressed in casual clothes. He wasn’t effective in Tuesday’s game, and sat out Wednesday, but making the playoffs also accomplishes a goal the Pistons set when the signed Casey and acquired Griffin last season.
The Pistons are in a tough spot, but with or without Griffin, they’ll have to soldier on.
“Adding Blake back would be great, but with the other guys, we can still make noise,” Drummond said.
For Pistons owner Tom Gores, who was sitting courtside for the clinching victory, seeing Griffin miss an important game was tough but extending the season was the priority — and just improving over last season’s finish was an accomplishment.
“It’s a little bittersweet, of course, but there's really appreciation. Blake has carried us the whole year, so I know he’s sitting on the bench, not able to participate,” Gores said. “You can’t have a better competitor than Blake. He really helped us establish ourselves.”
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