“I don’t know what to do with my hands!”
In preparing a quick preview for this game between the Detroit Pistons and your Atlanta Hawks (3:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Detroit Plus), several times, I’ve confused this afternoon’s opponent with the LA Clippers. Just a couple weeks in, I imagine Blake Griffin’s teammates are still trying to envision him as a Piston, too.
That’s how inextricable Griffin is from an iconic persona the former #1 pick of the Clippers built up over seven-plus pro seasons. The LA-era franchise leader in points scored, and SportsCenter highlights rendered, put that long-forlorn NBA franchise on the proverbial map. He won’t bear that kind of burden in the Motor City, but he will have to help re-entrench their team’s Bad Boys reputation, perhaps Eddie Haskell-style, while making them more consistent winners. Going from glitz-and-glam to grit-and-grease, Detroit is having a hard time figuring out what to make of their new star, too.
He’s like a pre-owned model infused with that new car smell. His introduction has been infectious for the Pistons (27-27), who were sliding toward the Hawks and the NBA abyss just weeks ago but, after winning their first five games with Blake around (all at home), are threatening to push several Eastern Conference rivals out of the postseason.
Opponents are still scratching their heads a bit, too, and that drawn attention has allowed Griffin (21.0 PPG, 25.0 3FG%, 7.0 RPG and 6.2 APG as a Piston) to serve as a catalyst for enhanced production by several of his teammates. Andre Drummond has been punishing the paint with more freedom around the glass (19.7 RPG in last six games). Stanley Johnson (15.0 PPG in last six) is playing with fewer burdens, while Reggie Bullock (51.5 3FG% in last six), Ish Smith and Anthony Tolliver have been burying perimeter jumpers with fewer closeout defenders around.
The Pistons did slip up against his old team at home on Friday, the bench overwhelmed while trying to keep a rejuvenated Lou Williams in check. Also, the frequency with which Detroit’s offense gets bogged down when neglecting to move the ball has not been lost on its head coach.
“Even though we've been winning,” Stan Van Gundy remarked to media, after Detroit managed just 15 fourth-quarter and 39 second-half points in the loss to the Clips, “we have that dilemma of how we're going to get Blake the ball and not be standing around watching.” They need a win today at the Highlight Factory to keep pace in the conference standings with the Sixers, who are reportedly stocking up for a playoff run with bought-out Hawk Marco Belinelli, the heat and the Pacers.
For Griffin, he’ll have to demand the ball, early in the clock, and move the ball when the Hawks’ defenders coalesce around him, a strategy that worked wonders for LeBron James (new career-high 19 assists, 10th career triple-double in a 123-107 win @ ATL) and his “shorthanded” Cavaliers on Friday at Philips Arena. This task had been Drummond’s (196 assists, already more than double his career-high) to this point in the season, but he now has Griffin to key the offensive attack from positions all across the halfcourt floor, while he returns more fully to the low block.
With teammates like Undulating Star Taurean Prince (0-for-9 3FGs, zero assists vs. CLE on Friday) struggling mightily on many nights, Dennis Schröder has been compelled to go it alone lately on offense (last 5 games: 20.2 PPG, 16.8 FGAs/game, 28.6 3FG%, 95.8 FT%, 4.2 APG) to mixed results. The temptation will only be higher, relative to Friday’s game, as he is less likely to have Griffin switched onto him, allowing him to feast against the likes of Smith, newly-acquired Jameer Nelson, Dwight Buycks (questionable due to illness) and Langston Galloway (5-for-9 3FGs @ ATL on Dec. 14).
Atlanta’s starting lineup combined for 67 points but a mere eight assists (one of those dimes from the lightly-used Miles Plumlee) against the Cavs, however, and it’s on their floor-leader to model the importance of the extra-pass to the Hawks offense. When Dennis (10 assists, 2 TOs, 3-for-7 FGs vs. DET on Dec. 14) calls his own number against the Pistons’ block-averse defense, he must finish his got-heems off the glass, or else Atlanta will be perpetually one-and-done.
Handling Drummond (19 rebounds and 8 assists @ ATL on Dec. 14) and Griffin will be a tough task for Plumlee and the Hawks’ frontline. They didn’t have Dewayne Dedmon for the last meeting against the Pistons, and Atlanta’s backup pivot will be hopeful for a big game after posting a pair of duds (combined 3-for-13 FGs and 6 boards) at Orlando and versus Cleveland.
SVG has vowed to find a way to get his star frontcourt more rest. But Jon Leuer is out for the season, and Griffin’s fellow ex-Clipper Willie Reed remains suspended by the league through the All-Star Break. Further, the Pistons have Released The Boban to the Clippers, and second-year pro Henry Ellenson has yet to impress. One can expect an uptick in playing time for backup big Eric Moreland, especially if the Hawks’ bigs and paint drivers can get the Piston star starters in foul trouble.
Detroit (9-16 on the road; one road win, at Brooklyn, since Dec. 15) has extra motivation to get into the playoffs, following Blake’s acquisition. The 2018 first-rounder they sent LA is only 1-4 protected. They don’t want to hand Blake’s old team a lottery pick. By the time May comes around, they want to find themselves challenging teams like the Cavs in the playoffs, not vying with teams like Atlanta (17-39) for a top-4 draft talent. As for the Hawks, it’s just the latest in a string of opponents facing a Must-Win scenario at The Highlight Factory. Ultimately, it’s up to them to determine which ones they let off the hook.
Let’s Go Hawks!