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Bucks vs. Pistons: Not quite in gear, but just enough

Khash and Giannis were enough to pull out a game that was closer than it ought to have been

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Milwaukee Bucks v Detroit Pistons Photo by Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images

On the strength of a Giannis Antetokounmpo triple-double plus a record-breaking night from Khris Middleton, the Bucks managed to scrape by the awful, yet once again Cade Cunningham-less Pistons at Little Caeser’s Arena on Monday evening, in an outcome not too different than what happened on Saturday. Giannis led all scorers with 31 points and seventeen boards, while Middleton nearly topped his season-high with 26. Marcus Sasser led Detroit with 23 off their bench.

Game Summary

Though Milwaukee shot well out of the gate, they cooled off and couldn’t separate too much from Detroit, in part because of early foul trouble. Giannis and Brook Lopez each accrued two personals in the first, but the Pistons (Danilo Gallinari and Alec Burks also picked up two apiece) weren’t exempt from the whistle either. Both sides shot a combined twenty free throws in the first quarter (Detroit 9/12, Milwaukee 7/8) and were knotted at 30 through twelve minutes.

As part of a 22-10 run spearheaded by Sasser, the Pistons took the lead early in the second and held it through the quarter’s midpoint. It never got beyond eight for Detroit as two-way play from Andre Jackson Jr. helped spur Milwaukee to even despite sustaining a bloody nose in the trenches. The Bucks finally pulled in front with about a minute until half after multiple opportunities and headed to the locker room up 58-56.

The Bucks played from ahead for the entire third, but continuing the theme, couldn’t separate too much. Like in the first, their largest lead was nine. Their already faltering three-point shooting cratered even further as they missed ten of their thirteen attempts from outside, and the visitors entered the final frame with a mere 89-85 edge.

Just under three minutes into the fourth, the Bucks surrendered the lead on a Sasser layup. Several minutes of back-and-forth shotmaking followed as neither team could credibly thwart the other without fouling. With just under five minutes left, Lopez nailed a near-logo three which actually gave Milwaukee a lead it wouldn’t surrender, despite Detroit being within one a couple times. Middleton hit a triple with 2:04 remaining that gave the Bucks their first double-digit lead of the night and simultaneously passed Glenn Robinson for third all-time on the franchise’s scoring list. It also gave Giannis his sixth triple-double of the year. That was the dagger in this one as the Bucks closed out the Pistons with a 10-2 run, good for a nine-point victory.

Now done with the Pistons—whom they haven’t lost to in just over two calendar years—for the season, the Bucks head back to Fiserv Forum to attempt revenge on the Cavs in two days.

What Did We Learn?

Rumors of Khris Middleton’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. As mentioned, Middleton moved ahead of Big Dog on the Bucks’ career scoring ledger with 12,010 points, happening against the team that drafted him and traded him for Brandon Jennings a year later. He even had his first dunk of the season, eliciting a rare smile!

There exists a certain portion of the fanbase who latches onto his poor performances—which are becoming scarcer as the season goes on—as a harbinger of a larger trend, like his stinker in Cleveland last week. That discourse then vanishes on nights like this, going against the narrative that Middleton might be cooked, because... well, he’s just not. January has been a nice month for him; aside from the Cavs debacle and the Celtics blowout—both of which saw him log just twenty minutes—he’s been above 31 minutes in all but one game, which was a SEGABABA. He’s also averaging 15.9 PPG and shooting 39.2% from deep despite the three light outings.

Three More Bucks

Giannis’ triple-double more than made up for somewhat of a tough shooting night.

While he did take five threes—a bit too many for a game as close as this—he actually dribbled into two nicely sank eighteen-footers from the elbow. Another two of those didn’t fall This actually wasn’t that efficient of a night from Giannis (11/25 shooting) from the field, mainly because of some trouble with Isaiah Stewart, who blocked him at the rim three times. Surprisingly, with some help from Jalen Duran and new acquisition Mike Muscala, the Pistons swatted away six of Giannis’ attempts within five feet. He did manage 8/12 at the line, though, rebounding from a rough 11/22 performance on Saturday.

Brook Lopez came through down low.

Yes, he hit the big fourth-quarter trey, but that was only one of Lopez’s two attempts from outside the paint, where he was 5/7. He did even better work, though, on the defensive end, racking up four rejections and six defensive boards. With his five offensive rebounds, he helped Milwaukee to a 39-36 and 10-6 advantage in each area, respectively. This is his second consecutive double-double and his third of the year.

One to forget for Damian Lillard, though.

After dropping 45 on the Pistons over the weekend, Dame struggled to find the nylon with a 4/15 evening, hitting just two of his ten three-point attempts. He managed to compile eight dimes, though, and had a key steal to preserve the halftime lead. He was a part of a productive starting unit too, with him and Malik Beasley leading all Bucks at +20 and +21, respectively.

Bonus Bucks Bits

  • Different officiating crew from Saturday’s game last night in Detroit, but similar results from two foul-happy teams of late. On Saturday, these were the foul shooting totals: 49 FTAs for the Bucks and 32 for the Pistons. On Monday: 34 for the Bucks and 29 for the Pistons.
  • Marcus Sasser might be the next name to join the legion of Buck killers alongside Georges Niang, T.J. McConnell, and Norm Powell. His meager nine points on Saturday seem to be the exception, as were his eleven in December. Finishing with 23 on 9/17 shooting, this outing was actually worse than his debut against Milwaukee in November, when he had 26 on 11/17. He sank a variety of floaters and a few pull-ups in the midrange while also getting to the rim as well as the line. It wasn't on display last night when he was 0/4 from three, but at 39.8% from behind the arc on the year, he appears to have some real three-level scoring ability. The Bucks held off his fourth-quarter charge, though no one could capably defend him. He finishes his rookie year against Milwaukee with 17.3 PPG on .568/.333/1.000 shooting.
  • Another game, another big disparity in bench scoring and plus-minus. Detroit’s six reserves outscored Milwaukee’s four 44-20, and the visitors were all between -6 and -13. while all but one of the home team’s guys were above water. It was 26-3 in favor of the Pistons at one point. I do agree with my colleague Riley about this being not a big deal in terms of playoff implications, but still, consecutive efforts like this aren’t a good look.
  • Also just like on Saturday, the Milwaukee starters were all at least +9 and the Pistons were well below even. The spread for the Pistons’ starting five was -6 to -23, an improvement from -15 to -29 a few days ago. As my colleague Michael said on the pod this weekend, plus-minus is usually a lazy stat, but it occasionally does tell a story and this was one of those times.
  • With their early success protecting the rim, blocks were 6-0 in favor of Detroit at one point, but Milwaukee closed that to 9-8. This was the second consecutive game that the Bucks did a much better job at keeping opponents out of the paint, only being outscored 54-50 by the Pistons.
  • Milwaukee struggled badly from three last night, shooting just 25.9% on 39 attempts. Going 4/9 from downtown in the fourth certainly helped them win after going 0/9 and 3/13 in the second and third, respectively. After hitting their first three attempts from deep, they then missed their next sixteen, lasting between the 7:35 mark of the first and the 10:02 mark of the third.
  • Another tough one for Bobby Portis, who followed up his four-point, seventeen-minute Saturday with a seven-point, 25-minute Monday and a team-worst -13. Role players, even good ones like Portis, are going to have off nights more often than one might anticipate, but he was on a bit of a roll prior to the weekend.
  • Jae Crowder also hasn’t found it for a second consecutive game, with three points in twelve minutes, missing five shots. Goes to show you that the shots he was hitting in garbage time last Wednesday didn’t mean much.
  • Pat Connaughton played just nine minutes and AJJ played twenty. No MarJon Beauchamp either. These all raise my eyebrow heading into trade season.
  • Cam Payne had been playing better over the prior week too before DNP-CDing each Detroit matchup. This one I don’t get: the bench has had so much trouble scoring lately, why not ride his hot hand, even if it was just a few improved games after a rough patch?
  • Look, the Bucks shouldn’t struggle this much with a 4-39 team missing its best player. I’ll take solace in these facts: as Morgan predicted, the Pistons did regress to their three-point shooting mean, the Bucks had a much-improved 108.7 defensive rating (though they should have no trouble achieving this versus the Pistons), and again did well at preventing opponents from easy buckets in the paint. I just need to see this from the get-go against bad teams.
  • Lastly, some crazy scoring around the league last night on the eighteenth anniversary of Kobe Bryant’s 81-point game. Joel Embiid scored 70 and Karl-Anthony Towns had 62 on the strength of 44 first-half points, which is actually two more than Kobe through half had on that famous evening. The highest scoring first half outside Wilt Chamberlain. Call me petty, but I really wanted to see KAT top Embiid just to stick it to Jimmy Butler.

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