DETROIT – The first quarter of the Pistons season – technically, that point comes at halftime of Tuesday’s game at Cleveland, but close enough – didn’t go the way anyone on their payroll or invested in their fortunes had hoped. Injuries were the biggest hurdle with 39 man-games lost among four key players: Blake Griffin (12), Reggie Jackson (18), Derrick Rose (five) and Tony Snell (four).
But if you squint just a little, you can see signs that the second quarter will undo some of the damage inflicted by the first quarter’s 7-13 record.
Here’s one: Over the last six games, the Pistons have the NBA’s No. 5 offense and its No. 7 defense. The 3-3 record over those six games came about largely due to two frustrating losses to Charlotte that came down to failed final possessions.
“I still like our team,” Griffin said after the Pistons blasted San Antonio 132-98 on Monday for their most decisive win of the season. “I think we have the talent. We have guys that know how to play the game. We’ve just got to play together. I’m always going to bet on myself – our team – so I’m optimistic about the next 60-whatever (games).”
If there were a magic wand to wave to cure any two ills that the first quarter of the season exposed, you’d use them on turnovers and defensive communication. The lineup disruptions fueled by the revolving door of injuries have fed both issues, but now each one has turned a corner.
In addition to fielding a top-10 defense over the past six games, the Pistons have cut their turnovers from more than 17 to 15 in that span. An average of 15 turnovers a game for the season would have the Pistons in the upper half.
Casey links both areas of improvement to Griffin’s return.
“Blake coming back tremendously helps our communication defensively,” Casey said. “The number one thing it does, too, is keeps down our turnovers. You have another ballhandler. I think Blake coming back gives us some stability with ballhandling.”
For all that went against them over the first quarter of the season, the Pistons go into Monday’s games a mere 1½ games out of the East playoff field. Getting Griffin and Rose back has gotten the Pistons closer to fielding two balanced units. The bench that the Pistons anticipated being their strength coming into the season lost much of its anticipated punch when Markieff Morris, Luke Kennard and Langston Galloway have all been elevated to starting roles at some point.
Kennard remains a starter and Casey will have a decision to make when Jackson returns on what to do with him. Kennard has earned starter’s minutes – his current 33.8 a game is narrowly second to Andre Drummond’s 34.1 – but Casey might ultimately decide the Pistons are best served having him come off of the bench, allowing Bruce Brown to remain with the starters for his defensive prowess.
But the bench contributed 75 points to Monday’s win over San Antonio even without Kennard’s contribution. Christian Wood’s emergence gives the second unit another scoring threat to go with Galloway, Rose, Morris and Svi Mykhailiuk, whose comfort level has ratcheted up a few notches over the recent stretch.
“I think we’re going to be good,” Brown said. “We’re still trying to figure out what everybody likes to do. Langston’s (Galloway) back in the second unit, so we’re just getting all our pieces back together. Once we start clicking, we’re going to be a tough team.”
If the Pistons are going to start making up ground, they’ll need to open the second quarter of the season with a win at Cleveland and start showing an ability to win on the road, where their 1-9 record is the NBA’s worst.
“We’ve got a lot of guys in here who have won,” Casey said. “Putting it all together, that’s another thing. It takes time. There’s no excuse. We are what our record says we are right now. But I do see steps going forward with improvement.”