DETROIT — The Detroit Pistons were dribbling down the court late Saturday night, the clock winding down, the victory all but assured. The crowd was asked to rise. They cheered. Andre Drummond waved his arms in the air, trying to make it louder.
Drummond found Bullock in the corner of the court. The game hadn’t even ended yet. Already, they embraced. Yes, it’s just one regular season game, but in the Pistons knocking off the Golden State Warriors, 111-102, there was a feel that something might be different.
“They’re tough. They got after us defensively,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. “They were more physical than we were. And they play a more traditional four/five combination with size and strength so they’re unique in that regard, but I was very impressed.”
After 20 games last year, the Pistons were in a similar position. They’d recently beaten a top team – two in a row in road victories at Oklahoma City and Boston. The Pistons even went to Golden State in October 2017 and won there. They were 14-6 and looked like they could be at least an Eastern Conference team worth talking about.
Then Detroit lost seven in a row, point guard Reggie Jackson got hurt, the offense plummeted, and the Pistons never really recovered.
Saturday night presented a small line of demarcation. After handily beating the defending NBA champions, Detroit improved to 13-7 with its fifth straight win. They sit at fourth place in an Eastern Conference in transition that is currently headed by the 20-4 Toronto Raptors.
The thought of last year remains, despite a new coach (Dwane Casey) and a new star (Blake Griffin). Why will this be different?
It’s tough to truly say, but Casey has consistently implored his players to stay within the roles assigned to them on laminated index cards at the start of training camp. The message can always be good before games count, but it’s stuck a quarter of the way through the season – part of the explanation of a Pistons team that seems to believe.
“He told us what he wanted us to do,” backup point guard Ish Smith said. “And let’s be honest, we’re all grown men, so it’s kind of tough at first. You have to swallow your pride but once you see that it’s working and it’s the greater good of the team, then you realize that’s what helps the team win.
“Then you embrace it and all of a sudden wins start happening and different things like that. So that’s huge.”
The Pistons bought in somewhat early – Casey’s pedigree helped – but wins have come in the first 20 games, accentuating what Casey was preaching in the preseason.
That goes for guys on the bench, for starters and the Griffin/Drummond combination Kerr mentioned – specifically Drummond.
When Griffin is healthy, there’s no question what he’s able to do and the Pistons are receiving that. In Drummond, the Pistons are getting a player reaching a different level. He’s averaging more points (18.6), rebounds (16.4), and blocks (1.9) than at any point in his career. The Pistons are outscoring teams by an average of 2.3 points per game when Drummond is on the floor, the best mark in Drummond’s seven seasons.
Reggie Jackson steals and sneaks the ball around Kevin Durant to Andre Drummond who takes it to the rim for two.
Some of it has to do with the work Drummond put in before the season – working with different trainers for the first time. Some of it could have to do with the influence of five-time All-Star Griffin, whose game day locker is next to Drummond’s. And some of it could have to do with Casey, who consistently stresses the need for players to stick with their roles.
“Just how consistent he’s been this year and he’s, on every single possession, he always was a monster every year I played with him but this year, he’s just taking it to another level and I think that’s huge for us,” reserve forward Jon Leuer said. “When he’s playing with the energy level and activity that he is on every single possession, he can anchor our defense. He’s the best rebounder in the NBA.
“So when he’s playing that way, it really, really makes a difference for us.”
But as players – and Casey – continued to point out, Saturday night was just one game. The season is long. Oklahoma City – with Russell Westbrook and the obvious storyline of Westbrook vs. Jackson – come in Monday. The East still has Casey’s old employer, Toronto, along with enough talented teams that the playoffs are not something assured.
But that’s the thing with this year’s Pistons – they beat Golden State and didn’t play anywhere near perfect doing so. Detroit, as well as it played, still has room to grow.
“Guys are playing with a lot of energy, together, playing with a purpose and the great thing about it is the fact that I don’t think we’re anywhere near where we can get to if we stay together, keep doing the things we need to do offensively, defensively and step into our shots,” Casey said. “…Once we start knocking down those shots and our free throws.
“So once our shooting starts coming around, that’s the next step of our growth.”