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The Milwaukee Bucks continued to make short work of the Detroit Pistons in their first-round Eastern Conference playoff series Saturday night with a 119-103 win at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.
The Bucks seized a 3-0 series lead, even though the Pistons had All-Star forward Blake Griffin for the first time in this series. While Griffin missed the first two games due to persistent knee soreness, he scored a game-high 27 points.
Giannis Antetokounmpo posted a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds, but it was a down performance from the MVP candidate. Milwaukee compensated well, as forward Khris Middleton led the team with 20 points, and Brook Lopez and Eric Bledsoe were right behind him at 19.
Bucks Have Depth to Win East Even on Giannis’ Off Nights
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The Greek Freak still played plenty freaky on Saturday night, but the standard he has set for himself through his first six seasons is astronomical—and his Game 3 performance did not meet that standard.
The good news for the Bucks is that his supporting cast met Giannis where he was and dominated as a unit. Milwaukee’s bench outscored Detroit’s 42-21 with forward Ersan Ilyasova scoring 15 points from the bench.
Milwaukee Bucks @Bucks
“There’s going to be nights like this, but my teammates did a great job picking me up.”
#FearTheDeer | @hulu https://t.co/5eNXwbbS95
Sure, a 16-point blowout could be a result more than anything of an overmatched Pistons squad folding.
But it feels more like a norm that will carry the Bucks through to the NBA Finals because this team has had to rally around Antetokounmpo already this series for a different reason, as he has been playing limited minutes to avoid aggravating an ankle sprain and knee soreness suffered throughout the season.
Without a strong showing from Antetokounmpo, whose minus-7 was the worst of all starters, held the Bucks still posted excellent efficiency ratings:
Eric Nehm @eric_nehm
Bucks offense flexing a little bit tonight. They lead the Pistons 100-78 heading into the fourth quarter. Bledsoe and Lopez leading the way with 17 points a piece. Antetokounmpo with just 12.
Antetokounmpo. Following that win, head coach Mike Budenholzer commented on his team’s depth to Andrew Wagner of Forbes:
“It’s great to see. I think it’s great for the group [to play without Giannis Antetokounmpo]. Like we said before the game, you’re going to miss guys. Everybody has got to be ready and everybody has to understand what we want to do and how we want to play.”
This is something Budenholzer’s Bucks have been preparing for all season. Milwaukee can certainly win games, especially against lesser competition, without an A-plus Giannis.
Barring miracle, the Bucks are moving on and will face either the Boston Celtics or Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Entering Sunday’s Game 4, the Celtics lead 3-0.
Boston showed off its depth in Game 3 on Friday night as All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving struggled to get going and four other Celtics scoring in double digits. It’s a much more even matchup but a very beatable opponent as Milwaukee went 2-1 against Boston in the regular season.
Notably, Antetokounmpo scored at least 30 points in each of those three games.
In last season’s first-round series with the Celtics, Antetokounmpo logged at least 40 minutes in six of the seven games. The Bucks lost that series 4-3, despite Antetokounmpo’s workload.
If the rest of the Bucks keep excelling, Budenholzer will have the option to play his All-Star with efficiency at the forefront rather than necessity.
Pistons Need Roster Overhaul to Support Blake Griffin
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James Edwards III @JLEdwardsIII
The Pistons have struggled all season to make shots at the rim and open 3s. The Pistons are missing shots at the rim and opens 3s. Down 19. Boos coming down.
Through the first two games of this series, the Pistons could blame being outscored 241-185 on Blake Griffin’s absence.
But he returned for Game 3, led all scorers while still not 100 percent, and the Pistons were still run out of the gym.
Griffin bothered Antetokounmpo enough to get him off his game. The fact that Detroit couldn’t capitalize on that was damning.
James Edwards III @JLEdwardsIII
Blake Griffin has come to Andre Drummond’s defense during his presser. Said he knows Andre is one of the anchors of this team, and one game that could be considered subpar shouldn’t make people forget about the season he’s had.
“[Griffin] has given us everything he has,” head coach Dwane Casey said, per Rod Beard of the Detroit News. “He has a presence that we can’t replace with anybody.”
The only solution for next season is to get Griffin some help.
The Pistons eked into the playoffs on the last day of the regular season with a victory over the NBA-worst New York Knicks. They won the right to take on the NBA-best 60-win Bucks, and with that has come a brutal reality check.
“I told my guys if you don’t want to come in Monday and scrap, then don’t come to work,” Casey told reporters, according to The Athletic’s James Edwards III. “Call in sick.”
The problem isn’t whether Casey’s players are willing to scrap—it’s the competitive ceiling of the players he has around Griffin.
The likeliest way for the Pistons to build the roster will be through the draft, seeing as Detroit isn’t a top free-agent destination and the team doesn’t have adequate assets to piece together an enticing trade package for game-changing talent.
Earlier this month, Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman predicted the Pistons would select forward Cameron Johnson out of North Carolina at No. 17. “He’s an elite shot-maker who’s ready to contribute at 23 years old,” he wrote.
Johnson was named UNC’s Dean Smith Most Valuable Player for his 2018-19 campaign in which he led the team in scoring (16.9 points per game) and made 96 three-pointers—the second-most in school history. That aspect of his game would aid the Pistons, who were 23rd in three-point shooting percentage during the regular season.
The Pistons and Bucks will meet again for Game 4 on Monday at 8 p.m. ET in Detroit. Milwaukee has the chance to clinch the franchise’s first postseason series since the 2000-01 season.