The Milwaukee Bucks have known they’d be in the 2019 NBA playoffs since way back on March 1st. The only mystery surrounding them was which struggling Eastern Conference team they’d face in the first round. As for the Detroit Pistons, well, they found out they’d be in the playoffs following a victory on the final day of the regular season.
Beginning Sunday, the first and last teams to clinch playoffs spots tip off in the first round. As tempting as it may be to dismiss the 41-41 Pistons, the Bucks must take them seriously. There have been five No. 8 seeds in NBA history who have beaten the top seed, so it’s not completely unheard of.
Despite not winning a playoff series since 2001 (I know, I know, you don’t need the reminder), Milwaukee might feel enticed to look past their first round opponent and see what the second round holds for them. However, they’d be foolish to do so. In order to keep everything in check, let’s investigate how these division foes may go after one another.
How the Pistons might attack the Bucks
Ever since Bucks’ head coach Mike Budenholzer implemented his drop pick-and-roll coverage, analysts have been warning us about the playoff implications. Despite the success Milwaukee had during the regular season in posting the NBA’s best defensive rating, they bled open shots along the perimeter. They gave up an NBA worst 19.8 “wide open” threes per game and a lot of them were the result of a pick-and-pop:
In the above clip, Al Horford set the ball screen for Kyrie Irving at the top of the key. As Eric Bledsoe fought over the screen, Brook Lopez dropped so deep his feet nearly touched the top of the restricted circle. With Lopez buried in the paint, Horford popped to the three-point line. Irving whipped a bounce pass to him giving him plenty of time to line up the shot and fire.
This pick-and-pop is best run with the man Lopez is defending. The Bucks center is the slowest big man they have and takes the longest to lumber to the three-point line. However, the Pistons don’t have a center like Horford who can demands respect behind the arc. After all, Andre Drummond can barely shoot free throws.
That’s where Blake Griffin comes in. Griffin, who is banged up, is used to being one of the primary initiators for Detroit. However, he also sets a fair amount of ball screens - an area they should target more often in this series.
In the four games against the Bucks this season, Griffin averaged 24.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game. Most notably, he shot a respectable 36.1 percent from downtown.
Griffin wasn’t a particularly useful roll-man during the regular season, as he averaged just 1.05 points per possession, which was in the 46th percentile. However, a lot of that could have to do with the players passing him the ball as well. Detroit is quite limited by their offensive playmakers, forcing Griffin into an increased role as a ball-handler.
Regardless, he showed off the ability to pop behind the arc against the Bucks. Detroit will certainly want to take advantage of Milwaukee’s drop pick-and-roll coverage and their eagerness to prevent shots at the rim. Griffin is the big man best suited to do this, and is more than capable of knocking down shots from the outside.
The obvious counter for Milwaukee is to implement the switching defense we’ve seen more of over the second half of the season. Someone like D.J. Wilson could be particularly effective in this situation. Nonetheless, don’t expect Budenholzer to be eager to mix up his defense in the first round. He has the confidence the Bucks can figure this Pistons team out even if they are hitting some threes out of the pick-and-roll.
How the Bucks might attack the Pistons
Detroit is stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to defending the Bucks. It’s really a pick your poison type of situation. I could use more idioms, but I think you get the point.
A fun battle to watch throughout the series will be who is the most successful at dictating the pace. These two teams are polar opposites when it comes to style of play. The Bucks were the fifth fastest team in the regular season by averaging 105.4 possessions per game. The Pistons, on the other hand, ranked 28th and only had 99.7 possessions.
At the beginning of the season, Budenholzer stressed two things that his team must do in order to get out and run; control the defensive glass and avoid fouling. How they rebound the basketball in the first round will be important. The Pistons are the fifth best team when it comes to grabbing their misses, snagging 29.1 percent of them.
Drummond is the main culprit, as he snatches 16.8 percent of his team’s bricks when he’s on the court. Fortunately, Lopez is the perfect matchup for him. Despite only grabbing 4.9 rebounds per game, he specializes in boxing out. His 7.2 defensive box outs per game ranks third in the NBA and is something the Bucks will need a lot of.
With Lopez boxing Drummond out, his teammates should be able to grab the rebound and go. By getting out in transition, Milwaukee will be able to put their stamp on the series and force the Pistons to play faster than they’d like.
Under the radar matchup
Reggie Jackson and Eric Bledsoe have a lot in common. They each began their careers behind future Hall of Fame point guards before moving elsewhere to get their shine on. Now, they’ll meet in an Eastern Conference quarterfinals matchup.
Throughout the 2018-19 season, we’ve seen Bledsoe turn himself into an elite perimeter defender. The list of players he’s clamped is impressive and includes guys such as Damian Lillard and Stephen Curry. However, Jackson is not on that list.
The Piston’s point guard averaged 2.1 more points per game against Milwaukee compared to his season average. He also shot much better from the field. Bledsoe was the primary defender on Jackson throughout those games, guarding him for an average of 31.5 possessions per game. The next closest was George Hill at 17.5 times per game. During those 31.5 possessions, Jackson wasn’t amazing, but he certainly held his own. He shot 50 percent from the field while getting 6.8 points per game against Bledsoe (he accounted for 6.5 points against Hill).
On the other end of the court, Jackson was the primary defender on Bledsoe as well and was much more successful. The Bucks’ point guard shot just 42.9 percent from the field. Even worse, the Bucks struggled as a team when Jackson was defending him.
Bledsoe certainly has all the tools to take advantage of this matchup, but he must avoid the same trap he fell into last postseason. This is redemption time for both the Bucks and their point guard and there’s no better way to feast than on a division rival in the first round.