Niyo: After taking one step forward, Pistons take one step back

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit — The sellout crowd at Little Caesars Arena got the “M-V-P!” chant going late in the third quarter of Thursday’s home opener against the Atlanta Hawks.

But as well as Derrick Rose had played for much of the game — “He’s special,” head coach Dwane Casey said later — everyone in the building knew the Pistons’ most valuable player, Blake Griffin, was sitting on the bench in street clothes.

Detroit’s starting point guard, Reggie Jackson, was over there, too, idled for all but a couple minutes after halftime with a lower-back injury.

So at that stage of what would become a lackluster 117-100 loss for the Pistons, you could hardly blame the fans for reaching.

Rose, the former league MVP who already is a crowd favorite as a free-agent newcomer in Detroit, was about the only thing to cheer in a disastrous second half against Hawks. The Pistons made just five field goals in the third quarter, and Rose, who’d finish with a team-high 27 points in 25 minutes, had all but two of those.

And if you were wondering how this team might look without Griffin — the All-Star forward sidelined by a knee and hamstring problems — to start the season, this probably felt more like the reality than Wednesday night’s season-opening win at Indiana.

That’s not exactly fair, considering we’re barely 48 hours into the NBA’s regular season and the Pistons already were playing the second game of their first back-to-back. And to make matters worse, they were facing a young Atlanta team making it’s fresh-legged 2019-20 debut. That’s some scheduling by the league office, isn’t it?

All about consistency

Casey had done what he could to guard against a letdown before the game. He had plenty of praise for his team’s energetic showing the night before in a 119-110 win over the Pacers, particularly the 40-minute effort from center Andre Drummond, who’d looked dominant while racking up 32 points and 23 rebounds.

“But again, this league is about consistency,” Casey said, sounding the alarm in a pregame media scrum. “What you did last night doesn’t amount to a hill of beans if you come out tonight and don’t have the same focus, same energy level. Not just Andre, but all our guys.”

All his guys aren’t healthy right now, though, and that only compounded matters as the Pistons came out of the gate a step slow.

Pistons guard Bruce Brown, left, was limited to 17 minutes on Thursday due to foul trouble.

“I thought we started out the game with a laissez-faire attitude defensively,” Casey said. “Especially coming off a back-to-back, I thought they came out and took the game to us.”

He was talking about Trae Young, in particular. Atlanta’s second-year point guard was blistering hot, scoring 26 of his game-high 38 points in the first half and sending the Pistons’ top perimeter defender, Bruce Brown, to the bench with early foul trouble.

But it wasn’t just Young beating the blitz and burying off-balance 3-pointers that did the Pistons in. It was an offense that never found any consistent rhythm outside of Rose attacking the basket.

The Pistons did rally with a small lineup just before halftime. And after Drummond hustled for a backcourt steal against Young in the final minute, Langston Galloway’s corner 3 gave Detroit its only lead of the night, 63-60, heading into the break.

Missing pieces

Still, for the second consecutive night, the Pistons’ starting unit was a net negative without Griffin or a healthy Jackson.

“We can’t say, ‘OK, tonight we’re going to Luke’ or ‘Tonight, we’re going to Andre’ or ‘Tonight, we’re going to Derrick Rose,’” Casey said. “We gotta keep that ball hopping and moving, and we did not do that tonight. That’s something that we’re gonna continue to work on and talk about.”

They’ll have to, because there wasn’t much to talk about beyond Rose’s play, particularly as the fatigue seemed to set in. The Pistons shot just 10-of-39 from the field in the second half.

“We can’t use that as an excuse,” Casey said, “but I didn’t think we had our legs shooting and it showed in the second half.”

Luke Kennard, fresh off a 30-point outing against the Pacers, looked assertive when he checked in initially in the first quarter. But after burying his first two 3s to cut the Hawks’ early 12-point lead in half, he seemed to revert back to the form we saw too often last season, head-faking his way from good shots into lesser ones. And on a night where his offense was sorely needed, he’d go on to make just one more shot after that first quarter, finishing with 13 points on 3-of-12 shooting.

“When you go out and get 30 points, teams are gonna pay a lot of attention to you,” Casey said. “They’re gonna run you off the line, and run at you. That’s something you gotta be ready for.”

Ready or not, the Pistons will have a day to recover before facing a Philadelphia 76ers team they only defeated once in four tries last season. You may recall that lone victory came in a wild 133-132 overtime game last October, with Griffin pouring in 50 points and generating his first “M-V-P!” chants in a Pistons uniform.

Before Thursday’s opener, Drummond took to the microphone and over the public-address system welcomed a noisy crowd that filled the joint — a welcome sight for a team that ranked last in the NBA in attendance last season.

“We’re looking forward to a great season,” Drummond said. “Back to the playoffs, and give y’all a helluva run.”

But to get there, they’ll likely need a fast start, and they know it. The Pistons have the NBA’s easiest schedule before the All-Star break, and the league’s most difficult one after that. So even without Griffin for the first 8-10 games of the season — he’ll be “re-evaluated for a return to action” during the first week of November, the team says — they can’t afford nights like this.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo