Bucks take full advantage of the breaks handed them to pull away from Pistons
Chris Schwegler/NBAE/Getty Images
DETROIT – The Milwaukee Bucks don’t need any built-in advantages, but they’re ruthless enough to capitalize fully when handed them.
The Pistons came into Wednesday’s matchup with the 19-3 Bucks – winners of 13 straight now – having won their last two games by 34 and 33 points. That might have impressed 28 other NBA teams, but the 29th – yup, Milwaukee – happened to be their opponent and the Bucks were coming off wins of 44 and 41 points.
Broadening the challenge for the Pistons, they were playing their third game in four nights and the second of a back to back against a Milwaukee team that was off on Tuesday. That was the same script as late November when the Pistons also played the Bucks at a rest disadvantage.
One more setback for the Pistons was dealt them before tipoff when Luke Kennard, their breakout player of the season, was ruled out with tendinitis in both knees, an issue he first encountered in training camp.
“That hurt us,” Dwane Casey said of Kennard’s absence after the Pistons, who hung close for 33 minutes before running out of responses, lost 127-103. “We felt like we needed another ballhandler. Against a great defensive team, you need multiple ballhandlers.”
With Kennard missing, Casey elevated Svi Mykhailiuk to the starting lineup for the first half, then used Langston Galloway in that spot to start the second. Both had been integral to a bench unit that had exhibited remarkable balance and chemistry in averaging 71 points over the last two games.
The Pistons rarely found anything approaching the sort of offensive harmony of recent games. Whether it was back-to-back fatigue, Milwaukee’s ability to cover the floor, the reconfigured units or simply missing shots – or, more likely, some combination of all of those factors – the Pistons struggled in shooting 42 percent and clawing to get over triple digits.
Milwaukee struggled just as much in a slugfest of a first quarter that ended with the Pistons ahead by two points. They probably needed to come out of it ahead by more than that to have a fighting chance. Milwaukee wound up with 22 points in the quarter and eight came via second-chance baskets and six more via turnovers. Throw in the free throws the Pistons missed (14 of 22 for the game) and Pistons mistakes – on a night they had little margin for error – were fatal.
“We have to credit their defense and their physicality with some of that,” Casey said. “Those turnovers hurt. We’ve been taking care of the ball, but against elite competition you’ve got to be even more concerned, more careful with the basketball.”
“They’re the top of the East for a reason – top of the league, really, for a reason,” Blake Griffin said. “It was a good test for us. Second time we’ve played them on the second night of a back to back. But we’ve just got to be better.”
Milwaukee surged ahead to start the second quarter when the bench – down one key player with Kennard’s absence alternately robbing the unit of Mykhailiuk or Galloway – struggled in minutes against reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who finished with 35 points and hit 4 of 8 3-pointers, his area of weakness.
“He’s the MVP for a reason, but we’ll live with him shooting threes,” Griffin said. “Tonight, he hurt us. You have to pick something when you play a team like this.”
The Bucks went up by 18 in the second quarter, but the Pistons closed to within 11 at halftime and were within eight with under three minutes left in the third quarter when it got irretrievably away from them. Milwaukee closed on a 12-0 run to lead by 20.
“It’s always a dogfight,” Galloway said. “We’re in the same division, so it’s going to be a dogfight every single night. Right now, they have our number, so we owe them.”