Things appeared to be cordial between Blake Griffin and the Detroit Pistons when they agreed to part ways in February. It appeared that way Friday in the immediate moments after Griffin’s return to Little Caesars Arena as well.
Griffin’s new team, the Brooklyn Nets, defeated the Pistons 113-111 in a closely contested game. Griffin walked over and warmly greeted his former teammates after the final buzzer. As he headed toward the away tunnel, a handful of lingering Pistons fans in the stands called out to him. Many of them cheered. One man wished him good luck on his championship hunt.
The Pistons’ postgame press conferences, however, were more reflective of the chippy, foul-filled game against a player who appeared to have something to prove against his old team.
Griffin had separate physical confrontations with two of Detroit’s rookies — Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey. He dunked twice, after not dunking once with the Pistons in 20 games this season, and yelled something at the Pistons’ bench after the second one. Following a warm welcome from the crowd in the first quarter, he began to draw more boos as the game went on.
Fans watched Griffin deliver one of the best individual seasons in Pistons history in 2018-19 and help the team make the playoffs. Injuries led to a decline in his performance, and eventually his departure. In his first game back, he didn’t shy away from the villain role. He scored 17 points in 20 minutes during the win.
After the game, Pistons coach Dwane Casey declined two opportunities to talk about Griffin when answering reporters.
“I’m not going to speak on somebody else’s player on another team,” Casey said. “I was proud of the way our guys competed and fought through whatever was presented in front of them.”
When Griffin checked into the game toward the end of the first quarter, he was greeted favorably. He got even bigger applause when the Jumbotron showed a montage of his highlight plays and interactions with fans while he was with the Pistons.
Things changed in the second quarter, when he successfully baited Stewart into a flagrant-2 foul and ejection. Griffin, who had been playing Stewart physically, attempted to grab a rebound and threw an elbow backward toward Stewart’s face. Stewart took exception and returned an elbow. Griffin sold the contact and was whistled for a technical for flailing, Stewart was ejected.
“You can’t be baited into a situation like that,” Casey said. “Understand your opponent, understand what they want to do and how they play and not get baited. It’s a great learning experience for him, unfortunately. But hopefully he learns from it.
“They’re a hard-playing team,” Griffin said after the game. “I don’t know if you expect to get elbowed, but I knew it was going to be chippy and we were going to play hard. That stuff doesn’t bother me, it’s part of the game.”
In the fourth quarter, nearly two minutes after catching an alley-oop log from James Harden and saying something to Detroit’s bench right afterward, Bey blew past Griffin for a dunk that didn’t count because he got fouled first. Griffin gave Bey a slight push afterward after Bey jogged past.
“It’s the NBA, guys get physical and guys like to compete,” Frank Jackson in response to Griffin’s performance. “That’s just the game of basketball. Whoever comes in here against their previous team, they want to make a statement. Just guys competing, getting after it.”
If it weren’t Harden’s 44-point, 14-rebound, eight-assist performance on Friday, Griffin’s 17-performance would’ve been the most notable of the night for Brooklyn.
But Detroit also committed avoidable mistakes that cost them the win. In a game that included a whopping 57 total fouls between the two teams, the Pistons attempted 47 free throws and missed 13 of them.
Newcomer Cory Joseph’s potential game-tying layup at the end of the game missed. Given how close the final margin was, Casey acknowledged the Pistons can learn from the game.
“I thought we executed and got a great look at the basket at the end,” Casey said. “Got what we wanted in end-of-game plays. This time next year when we go through those same situations, we’ll be able to execute and we’ve been there before.”
Overall, Griffin said he enjoyed his return to Detroit. But his focus, ultimately, is on the present and future. He wasn’t in much of a sentimental mood after the game, nor were the Pistons.
“It was great,” he said of his return to Detroit. “There’s a lot of people over on the other side that I have a lot of respect for and I have a close relationship with. It’s always great to see them. My focus is moving forward and winning games and all we’re supposed to do. It was good to see them, but better to come in here and get a win and get out.”