The first seed Milwaukee Bucks will face the eighth seed Detroit Pistons in the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs, with the first game of the series taking place on Sunday night on ESPN. Milwaukee won the season series against Detroit 4-0, with two wins at home and two wins on the road.
Here are three questions to be answered in this playoff series.
Will Blake Griffin play? If not, who will play in his spot?
Blake Griffin has been hobbling on one leg for the last few weeks, and his availability for Detroit is still unknown. He played limited minutes against the Memphis Grizzlies and missed their final game of the regular season against the New York Knicks. Griffin has been the engine of the Pistons’ offense this year, and the team has struggled to find any sort of success with him out. He has had a near MVP level season, averaging 24.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 5.7 assists per game. He has shot 36.2 percent from the 3-point line on seven attempts per game, adding a new weapon to his nearly full arsenal.
So who replaces Griffin if he cannot go for Game 1 or the entire series? Thon Maker has started in place of Griffin and has fought admirably, but has ultimately struggled in a different role. Offensively, Maker has been a disaster as a starter. He has shot under 27 percent from the field and 27.8 percent from the 3-point line in six games started with Detroit. Defensively, Maker can hold his own, as he is quick and uses his length to alter shots at the rim, but is quick to pick up fouls against a physical opponent. Glenn Robinson III has been a spark off the bench in the second half of the season, but his minutes have been sporadic. He has been a plus-1.9 since the All-Star Break, and is the biggest wing on the Pistons roster. He ended the regular season with a nine point, nine rebound, two assist, one steal, one block performance in 32 minutes off the bench.
Maker and Robinson III will receive the bulk of the power forward minutes if Griffin misses time, and Jon Leuer could also be sprinkled in as well. If Griffin can’t go, Detroit will have a taller task than they could have ever planned for.
Who will guard Giannis Antetokounmpo?
With or without Blake Griffin, the Pistons have a serious issue when it comes to trying to defend Giannis Antetokounmpo. Detroit is small on the wing, and Griffin isn’t capable of guarding Giannis when he is healthy, let alone on one leg. This leaves only a few options. The first would be Maker, who at 7’1” can be stingy enough to at least foul Antetokounmpo when he is able to get downhill. He’d end up in foul trouble rather quickly, which makes the idea rather flimsy, but Detroit is thin on options. Antetokounmpo will feast on smaller wings, so the concept of going big against him seems to be the way to go.
The Greek Freak was somewhat held in check by Detroit in four games, averaging just 20 points per game, over seven points below his season average, on 58 percent shooting. He averaged seven assists per Detroit, 1.1 more than he did throughout the season as a whole. The Pistons defended him in the regular season with the mindset of forcing him to kick the ball out. They decided they’d rather be beaten by the Bucks’ role players and side talent to Antetokomnpo, rather than lose directly to him.
Hence why the best option to try to slow him down is Andre Drummond. The 6’11” center has taken a gigantic step on the defensive end this season, and was the only center in the NBA to average over 1.5 blocks and steals per game this year. He’s defending at the rim, can hold his own out on the perimeter, and has a strong body frame to absorb contact.
Yet the problem that would likely arise with Maker would roll over to Drummond as well. He has had issues dealing with foul trouble this season, and the Pistons can’t afford to go long stretches with him off the court. Antetokonmpo is one of the best in the league at getting to the line as well, averaging 9.5 free throw attempts per game. He is third in the league in attempts, only behind James Harden and Joel Embiid. Mixing Antetokonmpo’s ability to draw fouls with the Maker and Drummond’s tendency to pick up quick fouls, and you have an uneven situation for Detroit.
The final option that remains Glenn Robinson III, who is lengthy and athletic enough to try to hinder Antetokomnpo, but won’t be able to do so. The problem is, Detroit has no modern wing to guard elite forwards. They lost that when they traded Stanley Johnson at the trade deadline. And they subsequently have the worst matchup in the playoffs from that perspective. It’s going to be a nightmare for the Pistons to try to stop him.
Will the injury bug be an issue for the Bucks?
As the Pistons wait for news on the fate of Blake Griffin, the Bucks are dealing with a slew of injuries themselves. Malcolm Brogdon is slated to miss the entire series as will Donte DiVincenzo. Pau Gasol is still on the mend with an ankle injury. Mike Budenholzer called it a “stretch” that Tony Snell would be ready for Game 1 with an ankle issue of his own. They’re hoping Nikola Mirotic is able to play by Game 1, but he has been out since March 20th.
They’re banged up. Do they have enough depth?
Sterling Brown and DJ Wilson are two players that are quiet contributors for Milwaukee, with Brown being a feisty guard and Wilson spreading the floor as another big man option off the bench. With Snell and Mirotic missing time, they’ll likely have a role off the bench, Brown more than Wilson.
Milwaukee also has George Hill, Pat Connaughton, and Ersan Ilyasova as weapons off the bench. Once they get healthy, with the reinforcements in Snell and Mirotic due back soon, the Bucks will certainly be deep enough.
This is the weakness Detroit will have to try to expose in the first round. They need to make Milwaukee’s depleted bench a non-factor. They don’t match the talent that Milwaukee’s starting lineup has, so winning the bench minutes will give the Pistons a shot to compete on a per game basis.
Prediction: Bucks in 5
If Griffin plays, which I think he will try to, Detroit can steal one, but that’s really it. Milwaukee is just too talented. They have the MVP. They have two other All-Star caliber players in Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton. Brook Lopez has torched Andre Drummond over the course of his career. When healthy, the Bucks are a much deeper team.
For Detroit, this is about playoff experience. They want the likes of Andre Drummond, Luke Kennard, and Bruce Brown to gain playoff experience. This gives them the opportunity to do that and see how they match up in a series against a team that will be in the upper echelon of the east for the foreseeable future.
The Pistons will show fight, they won’t quit, but they don’t have enough to give the Bucks a real scare in the first round.
All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and Stats.NBA.com.