The Pistons open the playoffs against the top-seeded Bucks on Sunday. The Detroit News
Auburn Hills — Dwane Casey didn’t allow himself to smile or become satisfied with just getting to the playoffs. He knew from beginning, when he became the Pistons head coach in June, that the job would have ebbs and flows. a
After his first regular season, Casey accomplished the stated goal of making the playoffs, but the tough task ahead, facing the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, is a tall order.
Now, Casey has the Pistons as the No. 8 seed, but he still has some joy in the task ahead.
“The last seven days and the next two weeks versus Milwaukee is a great learning experience. Our goal this year was to get there,” Casey said. “We shot ourselves in the foot enough throughout the season to put ourselves in the position where we had to earn it in Game 82 and that’s a learning experience.
“Now, we’ll look back in Game 38, 39 or 40 next year and understand what we’re talking about and how we want to do things.”
It’s a bit of a juxtaposition for Casey, who last year led the Toronto Raptors to the top seed before an unceremonious exit in the Eastern Conference semifinals at the hands of his nemesis, LeBron James.
The Raptors had the luxury in recent years of having clinched a playoff spot weeks before the end of the regular season and getting to rest players and figure out their postseason plan. The Pistons didn’t secure their playoff spot until the final night of the regular season — and had to hold their collective breath to squeeze into the playoffs.
“I’m excited. In the past few years, I was always prepared and wondering who we’re going to be playing in the first round,” Casey said this week. “Just getting there now is a different excitement — not nervous. We created this situation for ourselves, as far as losing some close games and putting ourselves in this position.”
On one hand, it’s a step forward for the Pistons to get back into the postseason. But facing the Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo, with the matchup problems and the deep talent pool they have, isn’t ideal for a positive playoff outlook.
It’s a high bar even to win a game or two against the Bucks, who had the best regular-season record in the league, but in some ways the Pistons already have checked off some of the things they wanted to get accomplished. With Blake Griffin’s knee injury likely limiting his play in the series, most signs point to dour expectations.
“We’re very happy to be in the playoffs; Dwane and his staff did a great job,” senior adviser Ed Stefanski said. “We had a roller-coaster year where it looked like we were going to be lottery bound and all of a sudden, we started playing great basketball and Blake gets hurt and we didn’t adjust well, for whatever reason. He and his staff brought us back and now we’re in it.
“Being in it is a good step for us. For these young guys, it’s just good experience.”
Casey, who is known for building relationships with players and developing young talent, is building a different culture, having made inroads with Andre Drummond and some of the young players already. It’s the first year of his five-year contract, but the initial signs are that he is making some progress in instilling confidence that will garner the most from their skill sets.
“Being the only guy left and having all these new guys come in and having them adjust to our new coaching staff and style of play and figuring it out makes it more fun for us, the longer we stay together,” Drummond said.
Griffin missed the regular-season finale and is "day-to-day" for Game 1 on Sunday. The Detroit News
In changing his approach throughout his career, he's learned to lean on younger players and to put a bigger emphasis on skill development, which has brought a cache of coaches who work more specifically on broadening those skill sets.
It can be seen in Drummond’s game. He’s averaged a career-high 17.3 points and has been more efficient in his shot selection, raising his field-goal percentage to 53.3 percent, his highest since 2013-14, his second season.
Stefanski credits adding a very skilled group of assistant coaches, including Sean Sweeney and Tim Grgurich, along with several player-development staff members who do regular daily drills.
“I was with Dwane in Toronto early in his tenure there. He has grown and he’s always been a good coach and great guy and he’s looked at the development of younger guys in a different light than he might have years ago,” Stefanski said. “That’s great for him — kudos. His staff gets big assists because Drummond has had a terrific year and he’s been focused and done a great job.
“Coach Grgurich and Sweeney work with him daily on the court and on film. A lot of staff members have put in a lot of time. Casey has done a good job putting a staff together for developmental players.”
It’s all part of the building blocks and foundation that Casey is trying to lay to reshape the thought process and culture that the Pistons have had, with this being only their second playoff appearance this decade.
Casey has made his mark in the first season, but he's looking for more — and Pistons owner Tom Gores is on board.
“It’s true. It’s a milestone. Dwane and I text all the time and you have to have milestones. You can’t show you’re a winner unless you get in (playoff) games,” Gores said. “That’s important to establish yourself. At the same time, you want to make some noise.”
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