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NBA Daily: Pistons Trying to Maintain Pace Behind Blistering Blake Griffin

The Pistons are trying to maintain pace in the Eastern playoff race behind the elite play of Blake Griffin, writes James Blancarte.

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The Detroit Pistons and the Brooklyn Nets went down to the wire last week in a thrilling overtime game. In the end, the three-point shooting heroics of Spencer Dinwiddie made the difference as his three-pointer tied the game in regulation and another three-pointer gave the Nets a thrilling one-point win in Brooklyn. For the Pistons, this came right after a close loss to the Boston Celtics. Yesterday, the Pistons fell behind big in the first half against the Philadelphia 76ers. The Pistons were able to claw their way back but ultimately fell short against a dominating performance from 76ers center Joel Embiid.

Although the Pistons came up short, Blake Griffin did everything he could to lead his team to victory. Against the 76ers, Griffin put up 38 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and two steals. Against the Nets, he logged 25 points, nine rebounds, four assists, two steals and one block, which came right after another big game in Boston — all losses on the road. After starting the season with four straight wins, the Pistons have lost four in a row to fall back to .500 on the year and currently have a slightly negative net rating on the year.

After losing to the Nets, Griffin brought up how the team’s less than stellar execution may have cost them close and winnable games.

“Yeah, I think so. Little mistakes down the stretch, mostly defensively,” Griffin stated. “Like I said earlier on those little things, they come back to bite you, and each game was decided by such a small margin that we got to be better.”

Despite recent results, Pistons head coach Dwane Casey showed enthusiasm after the Nets game for how Griffin is playing in his role in the offense and as a team leader.

“He [Griffin] did a great job,” Casey said. “He did a great job down the stretch of carrying us. He made some big three’s down the stretch to carry us. He’s been doing that for us all year and we need him to do that. Really happy with the way he’s handling the ball, making the decisions in those situations.”

Casey should be thrilled with Griffin’s play so far. It was last season that Detroit made the decision to trade for Griffin. In order to acquire him as well as a few role players and a second-round pick, the Pistons surrendered promising forward Tobias Harris, center Boban Marjanovic and a first-round pick to the Los Angeles Clippers.

At the time, this trade appeared to be a calculated gamble for the Pistons to forfeit some future potential for the chance to acquire one of the league’s most visible stars, as well as the chance to make the playoffs. Part of the gamble being that Griffin had been hamstrung by injuries the past few years and had appeared to have lost some athleticism as well. The other being Griffin’s brand new max contract he had just signed with the Clippers. Had the Pistons made the playoffs, the move would have likely meant additional job security for then-Pistons Coach and President of Basketball Operations Stan Van Gundy.

Things don’t always work out and the Pistons continued backsliding to end the season, eventually falling short of the playoffs. Meanwhile, Harris continued his year-to-year improvement with the Clippers that he has enjoyed every season since his early days in Orlando. In the end, the Pistons terminated their relationship with Van Gundy and hired Casey.

While the team has lost the past few games, the decision to use Griffin this season as more of a playmaker and a key decision maker so far this season has paid off. Griffin is putting up numbers that are not only a huge jump from last season but would put him into future MVP conversations should he maintain them and should the team be able to manage a winning record. Griffin grabbed league-wide attention after a recent 50-point game and seems to be a man on a mission. For now, the Pistons are currently enjoying the star they gambled for when they made the trade last season.

The team is hoping that this level of play results in a return to the postseason, which has been elusive for the franchise for some time. Aside from earning the eight seed in the 2015-16 season, the Pistons had otherwise not been to the postseason since the 2008-09 season.

Now in his first full season with the Pistons, Griffin has also shown a new level of ease and comfort, taking and making three-pointers at a high rate (45.7 percent on 5.8 attempts per game). This level of shooting gives the team the ability to play Griffin and center Andre Drummond together without fretting too much about over-crowding the lane. However, just because Griffin’s numbers look good, doesn’t automatically mean the team is hitting on all cylinders on offense.

“A little bit. I think it shows mostly when you’re playing with teams that have some continuity and have been together,” Griffin stated after a recent loss to the Celtics. “I think you kind of watch teams run their offense and they have a year or two under their belt and they just kind of go to the next thing and we’re still thinking after the first thing.”

While Griffin has been great from three-point range, the team as a whole is shooting just 30.5 percent, which ranks 28th in the league, while taking 32 attempts a game, 13th in the league. Should the team’s three-point shooting improve even just a little, the Pistons could burst out of this recent slump quickly.

Griffin went on to point out that the Pistons can still win despite not being the most talented team in the league.

“Yeah I mean that’s what we have to do. I mean we’re not going to be as talented as some of these teams in the east but we have enough talent, and what’s going to set us apart is our will and how we go about putting our will on the game,” Griffin said.

While the team continues to build familiarity and chemistry, placing Griffin as the focal point of the offense has paid dividends. Point guard Reggie Jackson has played well and has been able to operate at times as a set shooter and off-ball playmaker; although Jackson is one of the players that must heat up from the perimeter and improve his outside shooting in order for the team to get back on track.

As the focal point, Griffin keeps his head up and looks for open shooters. The Clippers were at times quite familiar with this version of Griffin’s game. Throughout the years, there would be periods when then-Clippers point guard Chris Paul would be injured and unavailable; it was at those moments when Griffin would shine as a Swiss army knife scorer and facilitator on offense. Griffin is now free from playing second-fiddle to Paul and is now healthy enough to play at the elite level the Pistons envisioned when they made the big trade to land the high-flying power forward last season. If he can maintain this pace, the Pistons could be back in the postseason this season and Griffin could find himself in the MVP discussion.

James Blancarte is a writer for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney based in Los Angeles, California.

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