2019 NBA Playoffs
2019 NBA Playoffs

Series Preview: Pistons sneak in, only to face NBA-best Bucks

Milwaukee gets first test of playoffs in physical Detroit frontline

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner NBA.com


Apr 11, 2019 7:52 PM ET

Giannis Antetokounmpo and the top-ranked Bucks are seeking their first playoff series win since 2001.

Playoff purists should welcome this matchup: It’s exactly what we would get if the NBA seeded its postseason 1-through-16. Milwaukee finished with the league’s best record and home-court advantage for as long as it’s alive, while Detroit was the last team to qualify and got in playing .500 ball. 

The Pistons come in with a stellar tandem of big men, Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, and an erratic point guard with a flair for dramatics in Reggie Jackson. But these guys lost seven of their final 11 games, needing a desperate comeback against the Memphis Grizzlies and a beatdown of the New York Knicks on the final two nights. 

What will matter most in the Bucks-Pistons series?

Milwaukee was a rock by comparison, more consistent than any of the other 29 teams behind Kia MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo and new coach Mike Budenholzer. The Bucks led the league in point differential while flexing the stingiest defense and controlling the defensive glass. Antetokounmpo is the multi-threat initiator, with solid pros such as Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez, Ersan Ilyasova and George Hill around him to help out. 

It’s a formula that has worked for the better part of seven months. It might get tested in May, but in April? Probably not.


Three things to watch

1. Who guards Giannis Antetokounmpo? There is no good answer here for the Pistons. Drummond is big and strong enough to bother "The Greek Freak" inside, but hardly can be expected to keep up with him for 94 feet. The same goes for Griffin, both because he’s not 100-percent healthy and Detroit can’t have him in foul trouble. Fact is, Detroit has no one with the length and speed to stymie the Bucks star. 

2. Where can Detroit give Milwaukee trouble? Drummond and Griffin can pound opponents into submission, especially given the way Drummond goes after offensive rebounds. But the Pistons’ greatest asset in this series might be their enhanced 3-point game. They made about 200 more than they gave up, while allowing foes to shoot 40 percent or better from the arc in just 18 games (and just once in four tries by Milwaukee). That could counteract one of the Bucks’ top weapons.

3. Which team’s injuries will hurt more? Milwaukee has more of them, Detroit has one to its premier player. The Bucks might be able to get by for now without Malcolm Brogdon, Tony Snell and Nikola Mirotic, but that likely will change if they advance to face stiffer East competition. The Pistons only had Griffin for 4 1/2 of their final seven games, dragging that bum left knee until he was forced to sit out the finale.


The number to know

29.6 -- The Bucks allowed just 29.6 points per game in the restricted area, fewest in the league. Restricted-area shots are the most valuable on the floor and Milwaukee was the best at both preventing them and defending them. Only 27 percent of their opponents' shots, the league's lowest opponent rate, came in the restricted area. And Bucks' opponents shot a league-low 58.0 percent on the restricted area shots they did get.

The Bucks had the league's best defense (104.9 points allowed per 100 possessions) and its most improved defense from last season, when it ranked 18th (109.1 allowed per 100) and allowed a league-high 38.9 points per game in the restricted area. Coach Mike Budenholzer transformed the Milwaukee offense, spacing the floor around Giannis Antetokounmpo. But the Bucks' bigger transformation actually came on defense, where improvement started with better protection of the rim.

-- John Schuhmann


The pick

The Bucks went to seven games against the Boston Celtics in 2018's first round, but that wouldn’t come close to cutting it now. There’s a conference finals-or-bust feel around this Milwaukee team, which has to prove it is more than a change-of-pace, regular-season challenge for opponents. In Middleton and Bledsoe, the Bucks have secondary players capable of winning a playoff game or two to ease Antetokounmpo’s burden. The 4-0 dispatching of Detroit in the regular season looks like it might be duplicated. Bucks in 4.

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>More 2019 first-round series previews

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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