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Milwaukee vs. Detroit: Pistons Push Past Bucks

The Bucks have lost three in a row. It’s not pretty.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Detroit Pistons Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Pistons are a team without a bonafide star, mostly comprised of competent role players and developing prospects. The Milwaukee Bucks have a transcendent talent and are shooting for the stars.

You would think, then, that the Bucks would be atop the Eastern Conference standings, and that the Pistons were stuck in the middle with serious questions to answer. As has quickly become the case in 2017, the opposite is true, and the Bucks are (technically) a losing team after falling to 4-5 on the season on the back of a 105-96 loss to Detroit.

The Bucks started off piping hot, hitting six of their first seven shots to take a 13-6 lead in the first quarter. Giannis Antetokounmpo appeared to be particularly confident in the early goings, hitting two midrange jumpers and a “power fade” (more on that later). Despite the Bucks’ general feistiness, the PIstons were able to work themselves into a flow and took a 28-26 lead into the second quarter.

The second period was a physical back-and-forth affair, but the Bucks were comfortably matched up with the Pistons 40-40 with 4:20 remaining. But soon thereafter...

A 12-6 Pistons run, largely due to Drummond realizing his size advantage over John Henson, helped Detroit build an eleven-point cushion going into halftime, 59-48. What was the story of the Bucks’ first half?

Facing a significant deficit and needing to turn things around quickly to avoid a third consecutive loss, I would love to report that the Bucks came out of halftime with a sense of urgency. Well, after a few minutes in the third quarter...

The Bucks had managed to stumble their way to a 67-50 deficit before a Tony Snell floater brought them to within fifteen. What made matters worse was that the Pistons had drawn four team fouls with just under 8:00 remaining in the third quarter, meaning the Bucks had to play with foul trouble on their minds (much like they did against Charlotte, another game in which they lost despite boasting the best player on the floor).

Malcolm Brogdon and Giannis each came through with a few timely buckets to stop the bleeding, and a nifty left-handed layup brought the game back within manageable range, down to Detroit by six late in the third quarter. Milwaukee was assisted by some timely air conditioning in the brand-new Little Caesars Arena, as the Pistons’ offense cooled off some, but the fourth quarter still began with Milwaukee in a double-digit hole, 82-72.

Giannis, who had played 32 of a possible 36 minutes already, sat for the first portion of the final period, and the lineup of Matthew Dellavedova - Jason Terry - Khris Middleton - Mirza Teletovic - Thon Maker was doing nothing to improve the Bucks’ situation. Despite the shooting proficiency on the court, Milwaukee again fell way behind (89-73), including missing 8 consecutive shots, before Jason Kidd was forced to take a timeout with 9:15 remaining in regulation. Still, the Bucks showed intermittent signs of life (including some chippiness between Khris Middleton, Stanley Johnson, Thon Maker, and Eric Moreland).

Thon backed up his (presumed) tough talk with a neat four-point play, Giannis reached his long limbs to force a block and turnover on Avery Bradley on the very next defensive possession, and Khris Middleton found a path through the lane to bring the Detroit lead back down to ten points, 95-85. The comeback wasn’t to be, as the Detroit lead was too much to overcome for a team that has struggled to coordinate the talent around Giannis with Giannis himself. Milwaukee now heads into a lengthy break before they take on the Cleveland Cavaliers on a Tuesday night NBA TV game.

Three Observations

  1. The Bucks are not quick enough. Many of Detroit’s baskets were a result of somebody, somewhere, getting beat off the dribble and requiring defensive assistance. Despite the presence of several good defenders, nobody on the Milwaukee roster seems both capable and willing to stay step-for-step with a ballhandler (save for perhaps DeAndre Liggins, who often plays defense as if his life depends on it). Exacerbating the problem is how much Milwaukee overloads the strong side of the floor, forcing the nearest Buck to sprint into a close-out to the perimeter, thus taking them out of position after the inevitable pump fake.
  2. Andre Drummond hits free throws now. Despite the foul trouble, Milwaukee was content to slam into Andre Drummond whenever he was near the basket and had the ball. This is a standard strategy against certain players, but Drummond (historically a poor foul shooter) hit 14/16 from the line. This is a huge development for Detroit, and makes them a far more potent team in close games (as long as they don’t need Drummond to defend, where he’s still rough).
  3. Giannis is Rodney Dangerfield on the road; he gets no respect.

Giannis finished the game with only two free throw attempts, and at one point had taken 26 field goals and zero foul shots. Part of this massive underperformance was Giannis’ surprising dedication to the jumper (shot 5-14 outside of the paint), but nobody else seemed capable of forcing contact on offense either. Still though, Giannis took six foul shots in Atlanta, four in Charlotte, and now two in Detroit. That doesn’t compute.

Bonus Bucks Bits

  • John Henson started the game looking as engaged as he has for the past few weeks, which is to say as engaged as he’s ever been in his entire career. Despite being physically outmatched by Andre Drummond (who is a behemoth of a human), Henson worked himself into legitimate rebounding position and, although he still got pushed off his spots, he often used his length to redirect the ball away to a teammate and away from a Piston. He’s trying out there, is what I’m saying. It doesn’t mean that Henson’s frequent forced relocations are something the Bucks should continue to withstand.
  • Near the end of the first quarter, the Detroit cameras showed an all too familiar sight: most (and I’m talking about 60+%) of the seats on a Friday night game were empty. This is at a new arena, within the first 10 games of the NBA season! I certainly hope the Bucks are able to reliably attract more guests to the WESC next year.
  • Giannis has been showing off a new go-to move this season which I’m calling the “power fade,” and I absolutely love it. Picture it: he receives a pass at the elbow, then Giannis backs up and takes a single power dribble into his defender. If he times it correctly, this contact will bump the defender several feet backwards, and Giannis smoothly moves to his back foot for a Dirk-esque fadeaway jump shot from the free throw line.

It’’s beautiful.

  • Thon Maker entered the game late in the first quarter, and almost immediately had a defensive sequence that made me very worried. Matched up against 32-year old Anthony Tolliver on the right wing, Thon skittered back and forth while Tolliver sized him up on the dribble, and he allowed Tolliver to drive baseline for a reverse layup, and also timed his jump too late to block the shot and fouled Tolliver in the process. Thon should not ever get beat like that.
  • Thon did come back down the floor on the next play and moved into position for a nice alley-oop dunk, and chased down an offensive rebound on the possession after that. He’s still an NBA player, albeit very much a project.
  • The Bucks aren’t officially in trouble, but I’m removing the glass cover over the alarm. There are too many Eastern Conference teams exceeding expectations, and the Bucks are not amongst them. Giannis is great, we get it, but there’s only so long in the season before the weight of expectations will either scare the team into doing something foolish...or worse, force expectations to be lowered. This isn’t to say that a move shouldn’t be pursued, because the Bucks simply need more talent, but as the losses mount, Jon Horst could be tempted to give up more than he should for a short-term boost.