MILWAUKEE — Coaches look for teachable moments. Players look for blowouts and laughers and games they can win with a few quarters to spare.
The Milwaukee Bucks followed up their breezy Game 1 rout of the Detroit Pistons with something more grimy and grindy Wednesday at Fiserv Forum. They got blitzed in the second quarter, 32-20, trailed by a point at halftime and got outscored again at the start of the fourth, 10-2.
So much for winning their best-of-seven series in three.
“Personally, if we could have games like Game 1 through the entire playoffs, I’d love it,” Bucks reserve guard Pat Connaughton said after his team had to scratch its way back before taking a 2-0 lead to Detroit this weekend.
Connaughton, 26, was a catalyst, stepping up to join Milwaukee’s unofficial Big Three of Giannis Antetokounmpo (26 points, 12 rebounds), Khris Middleton (24 points, eight assists) and Eric Bledsoe (27 points, six assists, three steals). The athletic 6-foot-4 Notre Dame product chipped in 18 points, nine rebounds and four — yes, four — blocked shots in 31 minutes.
“I think getting tested does bring a lot,” he said. “One thing my dad used to always tell me was, ‘You learn more from losing than winning.’ Now, we try to make sure we learn from winning as well.”
You don’t win 60 games during the regular season and two more in the first week of the postseason by not heeding lessons. What coach Mike Budenholzer saw in the first half, when the Pistons hushed the sellout crowd, were the same things his players knew, slippage so unlike them — against a mediocre opponent like Detroit, missing All-Star Blake Griffin (left knee soreness) again — that it ticked them off.
Matter of fact, when Budenholzer sized up the Bucks in their halftime locker room, trailing 59-58, he barely had to say anything to them at all. There had been some selfish plays and some stagnant play.
He knew. They knew. And he knew they knew.
“We’ve done a great job responding all year,” Antetokounmpo said, “and I think he trusts us. He knows we know when we’ve messed up, when we’ve not put in enough effort. So he just comes in, he looks at our faces — we’re all pissed off and mad –and he’s like, ‘OK, you guys go out there and do your jobs.’ That’s what we try to do.”
The Bucks’ main guys did the obvious things, such as Antetokounmpo’s 13 points in the third quarter, which Milwaukee dominated 35-17, and Bledsoe scoring eight in the fourth. Together, though, they all did less-documented things. Like poking away Pistons passes, diving to the floor and following up shots to seize extra opportunities.
Said Budenholzer: “When your best players are getting on the floor for loose balls, getting 50/50 balls, doing things defensively, everybody’s watching that. I think the whole team follows those three’s leads. The second half was a great example of it.”
One pivotal play came with 7:47 left, as Connaughton missed a 3-pointer. Detroit seemingly had drawn as close as 95-88 – “seemingly” because the Pistons would lose one basket on a replay review that showed the shot clock had expired. But no one knew it as Connaughton’s shot bounced off to the left.
And no one knew it when Bledsoe, all 6-foot-1 of him, leaped, corralled the ball with his left hand and guided it in. A couple trips later, Middleton stole the ball from Detroit’s Bruce Brown and found Bledsoe for a twisting reverse layup that made it 99-86 with 7:10 to go. It got no closer.
By the end, the numbers looked a lot like Game 1 with its fat final margin and big scoring numbers for the Bucks. Yet it was their No. 1-ranked defense that enabled them to snatch back this one. They outscored Detroit 62-40 after halftime, held the Pistons to 14-of-41 shooting and allowed them just a single offensive board. They pestered Detroit into seven turnovers in the half and a 17-2 edge in fast-break points.
Connaughton looks like the quintessential hustle-and-glue guy, so putting up fancy numbers — particularly the blocks, a logical extension of the zealous way he contests shots — seems like a bonus and might even feel like a fluke. But no more so than the Middleton doing a belly flop on the hardwood or Antetokounmpo raking through a thicket of arms and hands to knock loose the ball.
“I think it’s part of the culture of this team,” Connaughton said. “We’re at our best when guys are really putting forth that energy, that effort, and that consistency of both. Coach has harped on that throughout the season, and it’s our job to make sure we continue it whether we’re starters or bench guys or not in the rotation at the moment.”
Contrast that with the Pistons, whose coach was pining for the sort of sustained scrappiness Milwaukee demonstrated all season. Detroit started better (with shooter Luke Kennard getting a start for his firepower) and made that push early in the fourth quarter. It was just the parts in between and around where they faltered.
“Our challenge has been extending hard play, not getting bored with doing fundamentals,” coach Dwane Casey said. “Not getting bored kicking the ball out… Defensively, staying solid and making sure we execute. That’s a discipline that has to be at the top of our charts going into the next game and next year.”
The next game in this series is Friday on the Pistons’ court. Next season? That’s hurtling toward them, too, even if Griffin manages to drag his left leg onto the court.
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