‘It’s awesome’ – Pistons embrace underdog role as they head to Milwaukee to open NBA playoffs

Thon Maker played in four Detroit vs. Milwaukee games this season – all as a member of the Bucks.
Chris Schwegler/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS – Dwane Casey isn’t exactly soft selling the Milwaukee Bucks to his team to give them an inflated sense of their standing against the East’s No. 1 seed.

“They’re a great team,” Casey said after Friday’s practice with the Pistons first-round playoff series set to start on Sunday. “They’re one of the best teams I’ve seen in the last few years as far as shooting the ball, defending, playing tough. They have so many strengths. I just don’t know what we can do initially. But we’re going to go in and try.”

So many strengths. Such as having the NBA’s No. 1 defense and No. 3 offense. That’s a pretty toxic combination if you’re charged with game planning to beat a team four times over seven games.

Milwaukee is No. 1 in points per game, No. 1 in rebounding, No. 1 in opponent field-goal percentage and No. 1 in opponent points in the paint.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is at the root of many of those areas of dominance and – to complicate the challenge – the Pistons are likely to start the series, at least, without the player who could offer the most resistance and do most to help neutralize him, Blake Griffin.

“It’s day to day,” Casey said of Griffin, who missed four of the last seven games, including the season finale with a playoff berth on the line, with left knee soreness. “Had some treatment today and feeling better, but it’s still day to day.”

Day to day, but probably not Sunday. As Andre Drummond talked about his experience in the 2016 playoffs, he said he pulled Thon Maker aside to give him tips “to help him get a better edge on playing Giannis.” Maker said, “I’ll be on him, but it’s a team effort.”

The schedule gives the Pistons a break in that they open on Sunday as opposed to Saturday and get two days off between each of the first three games. Griffin will have been off for seven days before Game 2 and for 10 days before Game 3 if he’s able to return for either of those.

Of course, against a team that the numbers say was demonstrably the NBA’s best over 82 games the Pistons are in no position to cede any games until Griffin heals. They’re going in with a mindset of giving it their best shot and living with the results. Getting to the playoffs was the stated goal of Casey’s first season and whenever it ends they’ll reflect on the benefits of the 82-game journey and playoff experience on year two and beyond.

“We have to go and play hard, play loose,” Casey said. “Nobody on this planet that’s an NBA fan is going to expect us to win. That’s great. I think a lot of our guys have been underdogs all their lives. I’ve been an underdog all my life. Our owner has been an underdog and look what he’s done for himself. That’s the approach we’re taking – that nobody expects us to be here anyway. Play basketball.”

“We’re just here to play basketball,” Drummond said. “I don’t worry about what the critics say. We’re going to go out there and play the best game we can play and get some wins.”

Maker, despite being only 22, has more playoff experience than many of his teammates, getting there in each of his first two seasons – with Milwaukee. He was with the Bucks for all four Pistons-Bucks games this season before the February trade that brought him to Detroit. He had some big moments as a rookie in a first-round series against Casey’s Toronto Raptors. Casey said “the moment does not bother” Maker and, judging by how his face lit up at talking about the playoff environment, that seems right.

“It’s awesome. It’s the best time of the year,” he said. “You literally have to leave everything on the floor. When you’re the underdog, you have nothing to lose and a lot to gain. You’re just going to lay it out on the floor. Loose ball – you’re diving on it. You have nothing to lose.”

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