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NBA Fast Break: Blake Griffin leads resurgent Pistons; JaVale McGee is no joke

When the Clippers sent Blake Griffin to the Detroit Pistons months after signing him to a five-year contract worth more than $170 million, the trade was viewed as a victory for the Clippers. They were able to shed what seemed like an untradeable contract for a lottery pick and a more-than-solid young starter in Tobias Harris.

For the Pistons, it looked like a mess, a move born out of desperation and the knowledge that a free agent of any consequence likely would look right past Detroit.

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Griffin played fine by his standards (19.8 points, 6.6 rebounds and 6.2 assists) in 25 games with Detroit, but the Pistons lost 14 of them and missed the playoffs.

With a new coach and a more settled-in Griffin, the Pistons opened the season by winning four consecutive games, including an overtime thriller against Philadelphia that showed the other reason why the Pistons dealt for the injury-prone forward — he’s really, really good.

Against the 76ers, Griffin scored a career-high 50 points (the most in the NBA this season until Stephen Curry scored 51 the next night), converting on a game-winning basket and free throw in the final seconds.

For Griffin, the 50-point game was a full showcase of the on-court improvements that began more than six seasons ago with the Clippers. He made five three-pointers against the 76ers — as many as he made his entire third season in the NBA — while attempting a team-leading 10.

Maybe more impressively, he went to the line to sink a game-winning free throw on a night when he was struggling with free throws. Griffin, once a woeful foul shooter, would fade late in games and settle for jumpers because of a fear of the free-throw line. With things on the line Tuesday, he drove to the basket and drew a foul, tying the score with the layup before winning the game with the free throw.

Pistons forward Blake Griffin celebrates a 133-132 overtime win over the 76ers on Oct. 23 in Detroit.
Pistons forward Blake Griffin celebrates a 133-132 overtime win over the 76ers on Oct. 23 in Detroit. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

In his first four games, Griffin was one of the league’s leading scorers — a 50-point game will mess with a small sample — scoring at least 26 points each night out. He’s also got three double-doubles and at least five assists in three games.

With new coach Dwane Casey and a healthy Griffin, the Pistons’ hot start is a great sign in a wide-open Eastern Conference.

JaVale’s no joke

A lot of basketball people scoffed at the Lakers’ roster construction around LeBron James, a slew of veterans with spotty track records on one-year deals, maintaining roster flexibility for the star-filled 2019 free agency class.

JaVale McGee’s signing might’ve been most puzzling. How were the Lakers going to give big minutes to a center who had spent the last six seasons playing limited minutes?

McGee made some sense in terms of the modern NBA — he can play the pick-and-roll game and catch lobs, and he’ll block some shots. But could he be a key piece on this Lakers team?

So far, he’s answered critics with a resounding yes.

In the Lakers’ second win of the season, against Denver on Thursday, McGee had 21 points, seven rebounds and a block in nearly 32 minutes — the most minutes he’s played since Feb. 10, 2013. He scored in double digits in five consecutive games, the first time he’s done that since 2012. He’s second in the NBA in blocked shots at three a game while averaging 15.8 points and 6.6 rebounds.

Line of the week

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Wednesday against Washington, Stephen Curry: 51 points, 15 of 24 field goals, 11 of 16 three-pointers, 10 of 10 free throws

Curry’s monster night came without him playing in the fourth quarter, joining Klay Thompson, Kobe Bryant and Damian Lillard as the only players since 1983 with 51 or more points in 32 minutes or less.

Reads of the week

Bryant teamed up with Basketball Hall of Fame photographer Andrew Bernstein for “Mamba Mentality,” his first book. The book combines Bernstein’s legendary photography with Bryant’s words, detailing his approach to all aspects of basketball. … Chris Ballard profiled former NBA commissioner David Stern for Sports Illustrated last week, a good look at a usually unwilling subject. … Former Clippers Darius Miles and Quentin Richardson teamed up for Miles’ essay “What the Hell Happened to Darius Miles?” in the Players’ Tribune.

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