By: Will Burchfield
It’s looked easy for the Pistons since Blake Griffin’s arrival, probably too easy, as if the star would keep filling it up and the wins would keep falling in place. Success can have an intoxicating effect.
It can also mask certain flaws, and the Pistons were forced to acknowledge theirs after Friday night’s 108-95 loss to the Clippers. To wit: This can’t be the Blake Show.
“Even though we’ve been winning we have that dilemma a little bit that we have to figure out,” said Stan Van Gundy. “How are we going to balance getting Blake the ball and not just be a team that’s standing around and watching?”
The Pistons went stagnant in the second half, putting up just 36 points, and all but froze in the fourth quarter when they were outscored 31-15. The ball movement that has fueled this team’s success dried up. It was each player staring at the other on offense, waiting for someone, usually Griffin, to beat his defender one-on-one.
He’d been up to the task in the four games prior. He wasn’t on Friday night.
Nor was anyone else, and suddenly the post-trade growing pains to which Van Gundy drew warning came acutely into focus. That’s what happens when the buzz wears off.
“Very bad basketball,” Van Gundy said.
This was inevitable, of course. In acquiring Griffin, the Pistons added an isolation player to a motion-oriented offense. That’s not a gap that can’t be bridged, but it will take time. And the Pistons have practiced just twice in the 10 days since Griffin’s arrival.
Isolation basketball looks fine when shots go in. But Griffin went 7-19 Friday night, tinting the lenses a bit in a starry-eyed Little Caesar Arena. And perhaps that’s for the best. Not that the Pistons thought they had it all figured out, but such a performance forces a look in the mirror.
“I just need to do a better job of maybe not pounding the ball inside so much. And then just getting on the perimeter, getting to the second side, second action, pick-and-roll, short roll, mixing it up, I think that’ll be better for us,” Griffin said. “I have to do a better job making sure of everybody’s involved in the offense.”
There were other culprits on Friday night. Andre Drummond went 5-15, and the offense as a whole fell into a rut of stand-and-watch basketball in the fourth quarter. If the ball movement was bad, the player movement was worse.
It was telling that Reggie Bullock poured in 16 points in the first half and was held to three in the second. Even if the Clippers paid him more attention, it was the Pistons who took him out of the game. They stopped moving the ball, and Bullock stopped getting open looks.
It’s in a game like this, when the Pistons’ two best players go cold and the offense grinds to a halt, that the absence of Reggie Jackson is especially clear. Detroit was languishing; Jackson’s a scorer who can provide a jolt.
“We don’t have him and we won’t have him for a while,” said Van Gundy. “Obviously that’s a loss, but we’ve played well without him. We’re capable of playing the game a lot better with the guys that we have.”
It’s largely up to the coach to make the offense work, not least because he’s also the president who called for the big change. Van Gundy acknowledged the tactical challenge in front of him when the Pistons traded for Griffin, and he admits he hasn’t exactly mastered it since. If it was “nerve-wracking” then, it may become head-scratching soon.
“For my part,” Van Gundy said, “we’re not functioning smoothly offensively.”
This was a loss that peeled back the veneer of Detroit’s 4-0 start with Griffin. It was a loss that forced the team to confront the kind of facts that are often glazed over by winning. That’s one viewpoint, at least.
Here’s another: “A lot of times after a loss, this is kind of the mood. It’s a little bit negative. But I didn’t really expect to go 33-0 coming in,” Griffin said with a playful little smile. “We just have to get to work and be better. It’s something that’s easily fixable. It’s just one loss.”
The Pistons have a lot to iron out and not much time to spare. It’s an offensive makeover on the fly, and things have looked smooth at times, wrinkled at others. Friday night won’t be the last of its kind.
That it was the first of its kind, five games into a heady show, was sobering. But it was equally revealing, and the Pistons will be better for it on Sunday in Atlanta. On Saturday it’s back to the drawing board, which is right where this team needs to be.