Detroit — It’s hard to go from a franchise hero to villain in a short span. Once a player has gotten in fans’ good graces, he typically doesn’t lose that status without some significant event that turns the tide.
Blake Griffin seems to have found a way, in the span of about a month.
Griffin, who led the Pistons to the playoffs in 2019, in his first full season after a trade from the Los Angeles Clippers, became the face of the franchise. Even with that, there was a small pocket of fans who believed he was too “Hollywood” to ever be in the same category as Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Chauncey Billups or Ben Wallace in Pistons lore.
That season, Griffin was All-NBA and even in the midst of a first-round sweep to the Milwaukee Bucks, fans showed their appreciation as he walked off the court, lugging a left knee that carried the weight of the franchise that season.
Griffin returned Friday to play the Pistons for the first time since joining the Brooklyn Nets this month. The Pistons gave him a worthy tribute but that’s about where the pleasantries ended. Griffin had a couple of run-ins with rookie Isaiah Stewart — who’s been known to get under other players’ skin with his hustle and tough play.
Stewart and Griffin got tangled up and Griffin caught Stewart with an elbow. Stewart made sure that he returned the sentiment. Stewart was assessed a flagrant-2 foul and ejected. Griffin got a technical foul and stayed in the game.
The few hundred fans at Little Caesars Arena seemed to turn on Griffin from that point. There were a few boos mixed in when Griffin entered in the second quarter, but those magnified with the Stewart incident. If Griffin was the fan favorite previously, Stewart has assumed that role this season.
“Good luck chasing a ring this year — if you can catch up to it,” one fan yelled from the stands.
Griffin, who had 17 points, soared for an alley-oop dunk from James Harden and started talking a bit more, saying something to the Pistons bench. It continued for most of the game, including another run-in with another rookie, Saddiq Bey, whom Griffin had mentored this season.
Fans can be fickle — and there’s a fine line between a player being prickly and chippy. When he’s on your team, fans will defend him to the hilt; when he’s wearing another jersey, he’s viewed as a villain and a prick.
Griffin’s postgame comments didn’t help the perception, either. There are tons of examples of players being ultra-competitive on the court or the field of play, but fans lose sight of that quickly, especially when they feel like their new favorite players — and especially rookies — are being picked on.
It seemed surreal that Griffin could be antagonizing the same players who were his teammates a few weeks ago. It’s a tough lesson for the Pistons’ young players to learn, that even on the court, those old acquaintances sometimes go out the window.
At the end of the game, there were plenty of handshakes and well wishes between Griffin and the Pistons, seemingly smoothing things over.
Maybe not so much for the fans, though.
The Monday Drive takes a look at some other key takeaways from last week:
► The trade deadline wasn’t as busy for the Pistons as some would have thought. They did manage to send Delon Wright to the Sacramento Kings and get back a second-round pick in 2021 (Lakers) and 2024 (Kings). That helps to refill the cupboard with draft assets. Surprisingly, Wayne Ellington remained with the team, either because they couldn’t reach a trade agreement or simply because they valued his leadership over whatever return they could have gotten. Ellington is a solid locker-room presence and mentor for the young roster, as is Rodney McGruder.
► Mason Plumlee has made his share of blue-collar plays that never make the highlight reel. Then Friday happened, when Plumlee made a ball fake worthy of an And1 mixtape, sending the defender stumbling out of the frame.
Coach Dwane Casey has lauded Plumlee’s passing and ability to get the offense started, but this play was just one example. In the past two games, he’s had two other passes — a tip-out to Bey for an open 3-pointer and one where he slid on the court to pass to an open teammate — that are just as worthy.
► Hamidou Diallo and Cory Joseph made their debuts this week and each was impressive. Diallo showed some athleticism and some sleek moves to the rim against the Nets and Joseph looked like he’s never left Casey’s offensive system. Joseph is playing some big minutes because Dennis Smith Jr. is out because of back soreness, so whatever he can give is a bonus.
► Saben Lee got the first start of his career on Saturday against the Wizards — and he didn’t look out of place against Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal. The Pistons have been very optimistic about Lee’s future outlook, and he’s showing why. There’s a lot of focus on Killian Hayes’ return — and rightfully so — but if Lee can continue to develop, it could provide the depth they need at the position for years to come.
Pistons vs. Raptors
► Tipoff: 8 p.m. Monday, Little Caesars Arena, Detroit
► TV/radio: FSD/97.1 FM
► Outlook: The Raptors have struggled in March after they appeared to be headed for the playoffs. They kept Kyle Lowry, but traded Norman Powell at the deadline. The Pistons (12-33) have won both meetings this season.