Spread-you-out Bucks pick apart Pistons in ‘perfect example’ of changed NBA

MILWAUKEE – The Pistons gave up 68 points in the paint to Indiana to start this four-game road trip that ends Wednesday in Memphis with the Pistons still in search of a win. The gave up 66 more to Milwaukee on Tuesday to start the new year – 42 in the first half alone.

It’s not a coincidence that both teams employ centers that spend big chunks of their night posing as 3-point shooters. And if you wonder how 7-footers shooting 3-pointers translates to scoring layups and other baskets near the rim, welcome to NBA 2019.

“They’re a perfect example of how the league has changed,” Jon Leuer said after Milwaukee’s 121-98 improved its league-best record to 26-10 and dropped the Pistons three games under .500 (16-19) for the first time this season. “Spreading the floor. You don’t have help from the big man. When you have five guys on the perimeter, you really have to be in the gaps and help that way. You can’t really help from your normal weak-side rotation, so that makes it tough.”

Especially tough when Milwaukee’s 7-footer, Brook Lopez, hits 7 of 12 triples. The Bucks, who average 13.6 triples and 39.2 attempts a game – the latter good for No. 2 in the NBA – were held well below those averages at 10 of 27, following Dwane Casey’s script of limiting 3-pointers. But having Lopez posing that level of threat – and requiring Andre Drummond and Leuer to stray so far from the rim to guard him – left the lane an inviting target for all of Milwaukee’s perimeter players.

One reason they took 12 fewer 3-pointers than a typical game, perhaps, was the fact they had so many opportunities to drive. Milwaukee hit 21 of 26 shots in the paint in the first half, 33 of 44 for the game.

Having Bruce Brown in the starting lineup allowed Casey to have him guard Bucks point guard Eric Bledsoe, whose penetration bedeviled the Pistons in two December losses. But Malcolm Brogdon scored on three early drives and the Bucks shot 75 percent in a 35-point first quarter. The Pistons led 27-25 but when their shooting inevitably cooled, their defense just couldn’t keep Milwaukee within arm’s length.

“Controlling the ball, keeping the guy in front of you, keeping your body between the ball and the basket, sitting down in a stance,” Casey said, rattling off the keys to preventing the penetration the Bucks got with far too little resistance. “We’ve got to trust our help, trust each other, understand where the help is coming from, get over there quicker. That’s togetherness.”

It didn’t help that the Pistons were without three rotation cogs: Ish Smith, who got hurt four weeks ago on the first trip to Milwaukee and remains sidelined by a torn adductor muscle; Zaza Pachulia, who suffered a right lower calf injury in Sunday’s loss at Orlando and had an MRI on Monday; and Stanley Johnson, who took a Nic Vucevic knee to his left thigh in that game and felt discomfort going through pregame warmups.

It also didn’t help that Brown and Langston Galloway both shot 0 of 7, or Jose Calderon went 0 of 5, or that Luke Kennard went 3 of 10, though he continued the pattern begun on this road trip – he scored 30 points in the losses to Indiana and Orlando – of not passing up the open shots as he’d done during a six-game slump in which Kennard totaled 24 points.

Rookie Khyri Thomas, who’d scored a total of nine points in 31 minutes spread over six games, got his most extended run yet and produced 13 points in 19-plus minutes. Thomas finished the game at point guard.

“I was feeling comfortable out there,” he said. “I got an actual couple of minutes for the first time. That’s what I was looking for, so just went out there and played and had fun.”

Brown also had about a six-minute stint at point guard early in the fourth quarter on a night Reggie Jackson scored 19, 15 in the first half.

“I liked the way the young kids competed,” Casey said. “Khyri Thomas, we wanted to get a good look at him with Stanley coming up lane right before the game. I thought the young guys played hard.”

They just couldn’t get in the way of the Bucks often enough to stop their forays to the basket or cover all the space that needed defending with their big men pulled out so far from the rim.

“We just have to do a better job of individual defense,” Leuer said. “When they’re breaking us down one on one, that makes it tough. They do a really good job of spreading the floor. Their guards made plays. Just got to give them credit.”