DETROIT — The sea of blue and red erupted each time Blake Griffin thundered toward the basket, stepped back for a 3-pointer or sprung upward to snatch a rebound. Detroit Pistons fans had yet to see their franchise power forward check in this postseason, and they knew he was their last best hope.
Just maybe, the fans thought as they bellowed Griffin’s name, he could deliver Detroit’s first playoff win since 2008. Deep down — between cries of “De-troit basketball!” — they surely knew that the chances of the eighth-seeded Pistons coming back to defeat the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks were slim. But just maybe Griffin’s return could also mark the return of Detroit’s fight after two dispiriting losses to open their first-round series.
As it turned out, the Bucks absorbed Griffin’s return without a second thought, reeling off a third consecutive blowout win despite a rare off night for Giannis Antetokounmpo. Whereas some first-round series have seen flagrant fouls, ejections and trash talk, Milwaukee has calmly taken apart Detroit at every turn. The Bucks seem to be quietly be making a statement: They mean business.
“We just have such professional, intelligent players,” Brook Lopez told ESPN. “We have great depth and great trust in one another, but our focus is huge.”
The Bucks have preached the importance of unrelenting focus all season long. It’s part of what propelled them to a league-best 60 wins. Throughout the season, coach Mike Budenholzer would often scribble “Be Us” on the whiteboard in the Bucks locker room. The phrase served as a reminder not to get wrapped up in outside noise.
In the playoffs, that emphasis on concentration has heightened. Budenholzer has encouraged players to leave their families behind in Milwaukee during this trip or, if they do come, suggested making arrangements for them to stay separately. He also advised players to cut back on television and social media.
“Bud has done a great job the whole season keeping this organization family-oriented,” Antetokounmpo told ESPN. “If coach doesn’t want us to have our family around for two games, I think everybody can be patient and lock in.”
At a practice in between Game 1 and 2, Antetokounmpo reiterated the importance of focus. He explained that he had watched the defending champion Golden State Warriors lose focus and relinquish a 31-point lead to the LA Clippers. Complacency, he warned, had no place in Milwaukee’s organization.
“You cannot be sloppy,” Antetokounmpo said. “When you’re lazy, the basketball gods, they watch the game, and you’re going to pay for it.”
The Pistons made some adjustments for Game 2 following a 35-point Game 1 loss, as Detroit coach Dwane Casey employed more zone defense. He inserted Luke Kennard into the starting lineup, giving the Pistons a much-needed infusion of shooting.
It worked temporarily. After the first quarter of Game 1, the Pistons were already down by 20; they trailed by just 11 after the first quarter of Game 2. But eventually, just like in the first game, Detroit began to slip, and they’d go on to lose by 21 points.
In Game 3, Griffin returned. As important as it was for Griffin to breathe life into Detroit’s suffering offense, his greatest impact was on the defensive end.
But look closely. Over the course of the game, it became apparent Griffin’s knee was not completely healthy. He wore a heavy-duty protective wrap that extended from high thigh to his mid-calf. There were times he lumbered at half-speed to get back on defense. There were other moments when a hard foul pushed him to the ground, Griffin got up gingerly as if to check that he was still feeling at least as good as he did when he went down. When he wasn’t on the court, Detroit’s trainers wrapped both of his knees with black ice packs.
Still, the Pistons kept it close early on. There were moments of excitement and chippiness: Bucks guard Sterling Brown and Pistons center Andre Drummond got forehead to forehead, spitting foul language. They were each issued a technical foul for the exchange. But just like in the last two games, the Pistons eventually unraveled and the Bucks won 119-103.
Milwaukee’s three wins haven’t been carbon copies. With Antetokounmpo scoring just 14 points, his fewest since since Jan. 15, Budenholzer had to search for other sources of offense. Lopez and Khris Middleton helped fill the void with 19 and 20 points, respectively, and Milwaukee’s spread offense again caused problems for Drummond.
In Game 3, the Bucks were outscored by seven points with Antetokounmpo on the floor, but ultimately outscored the Pistons by 23 points in the 20 minutes that Antetokounmpo was off the floor. And Drummond allowed the Bucks to shoot 13-of-23 in Game 3 alone for 38 points, which is the most in any game versus any one defender this postseason according to ESPN Stats and Information.
“It’s a tough, tough team,” Drummond said of the Bucks. “We are fighting hard but it’s an experienced team and we’re a team that’s trying to figure it out.”
The odds are good that the Bucks will walk away from this series victorious. But the road will only get tougher from here. In round two, they will likely face the Boston Celtics — the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last year. The farther the Bucks get in the playoffs, the more the egalitarian, all-hands-on-deck offense they displayed in Game 3 will be needed. And the deeper into the postseason they go, the more they will need to focus.
“At the end of the day, we haven’t won a playoff series in a while,” Antetokounmpo said. “We are hungry.”