It’s finally here. The moment we’ve all been waiting for. The 2019 NBA Playoffs kick off this weekend and the Milwaukee Bucks will enter as the league’s top seed. Behind Giannis Antetokounmpo and first year coach Mike Budenholzer, the Bucks managed to achieve a 60-win season, a milestone only elite teams have ever reached. But none of that matters now. All sixteen teams have their fair shot at the ultimate goal. There are four rounds to the trophy, and Milwaukee’s first round opponent wasn’t decided until the final day of the regular season. To the fans liking, the Detroit Pistons are the lucky team to match with their neighbors across the lake. We know this is a 1 vs. 8 matchup which should mean an easy series for the Bucks, but crazier things have happened. Let’s take a look at how these two teams matched up in the season and what to expect in a 7 game do-or-die series.
Let’s get the first thing out of the way. The Bucks and Pistons played four total games head-to-head this season and Milwaukee won them all. In those four games, the average margin of victory was 14.7 points with Milwaukee shooting 10.9% better from the field. These are the basic stats that would automatically make one think that it’ll be a four game series, no question. But the postseason isn’t the regular season. Teams aren’t playing one team at the beginning of the regular season then once at the end. Every single playoff game matters. Neither team will have a reason to rest anyone to keep them fresh. There’s also time over the length of a series to make adjustments and cater the game plan specifically for one opponent.
The ultimate goal of each season is to finish better than the last season. The Pistons finished last year in the 9th spot in the East standings with a 39-43 record, just missing the playoffs. This year, they squeaked into the 8th seed and improved by two games. Given the injuries to Blake Griffin and the roster changes made during this season, the small jump is justifiable. The Bucks made a much bigger jump.
After finishing 44-38 and grabbing the 7th seed while using two different coaches over the season, Milwaukee’s front office made some big changes. A new coach, a new center, multiple guards, and a new system was the difference that made the Bucks a 60-22 team in just one season. Still, there’s much to be proved. The Bucks haven’t made it out of the first round since the 2000-2001 season, most recently losing to the Boston Celtics in a 7 game series last season. While the opponent may seem like something to look over, we can’t forget the first step is still a tall task for this organization.
Now let’s compare the strengths and weaknesses of both teams from a statistical standpoint. The Milwaukee Bucks rank within the top three in the following categories: field goal %, two point %, rebounds/game, blocks/game, total points/game, net rating, opponent field goal %. Here’s the categories the Detroit Pistons rank top TEN in: opponent three point percentage (8th), opponent points/game (7th).
Again, this isn’t really a surprise considering where these teams feel in the playoff seeding. The Bucks hold the advantage in nearly every major category except for opponent three point percentage, which is well-known as the one major flaw to Coach Bud’s system. Luckily for Milwaukee, Detroit ranks 23rd in the league in three point percentage while shooting the 6th most attempts from three. That means a lot of long rebounds for the best and lengthiest rebounding team in the league. Andre Drummond is the only real threat on the boards, so the Bucks should have the freedom to use more than one defender to box him out when needed.
Another interesting season stat is where the two squads land in the pace rankings. Milwaukee runs the second fastest offense while Detroit is the third slowest in the league. With shortened lineups in the postseason, the game may favor the Pistons in this one factor. The pace will be forced to slow down because each team will probably go no further than five deep into their lineup. Both teams like to turn the ball over, so the transition opportunities should still be their regardless. That’s the most fun part about a fast paced offense anyway.
Lineups aren’t the same in the playoffs as they were for the long season. Each team tries to isolate their best combinations of players and work the analytics that give their team the best shot. But just because the numbers may give you a clear result doesn’t mean the basketball gods will answer your prayers. Injuries happen over the course of the season and both of these teams haven’t been exempt from their fair share. The Bucks will be without Malcolm Brogdon until at least the second round. Tony Snell and Nikola Mirotic should be available sometime in the first round, but it’s still unclear exactly when they will be ready. These are major injuries for a very deep team so compromises will need to be made.
The Detroit Pistons are dealing with their own issues. Most notably, their All-Star forward Blake Griffin has a nagging ankle issue that held him out of a number of games down the final stretch of the regular season and has put his first game availability in question. Throughout the season, the Pistons experienced a number of injuries and roster changes that resulted in a much more diverse set of lineups. This definitely hurts more than it helps. You want your players to have as much chemistry as possible before they see the floor for meaningful playoff minutes and the Bucks would hold the significant advantage if Brogdon was healthy. Now, this first round could a little more questionable.
The Bucks starting lineup they used by far the most this season was Giannis, Bledsoe, Brogdon, Lopez, and Khris. Those five started 56 of the 82 games and racked up nearly 600 minutes together with a points margin of +7.4. That’s extremely good for that many minutes. However, Brogdon isn’t available. The next most used replacement this season was Sterling Brown, who started four games and went 3-1. The record is great, but the net points tell a different story. In 130 minutes, those five were -16.4 on the court. That might fly past the Pistons, but it makes it much more difficult after at the very least. Something the Bucks will probably take a look at is the difference between the four starters + Sterling and the four + George Hill. In Hill’s 33 minutes, a very small sample size, the group was +33. That’s at least something to take a look at.
The Pistons will likely have Blake Griffin for some of the games, but most likely won’t be able to appear in all. The most used starting lineup without Griffin went 2-3 compared to 12-8 with Griffin. Needless to say, Griffin will need to play a lot for Detroit to have any chance. When those five guys, Drummond, Brown, Ellington, Galloway, and Thon Maker have seen the floor together, it resulted in +9.6 in 72 minutes. While they may be able to manage lesser teams without him, they still have their best lineup with Griffin that was +36.8 in 68 minutes. Piston’s Coach Dwayne Casey is well-known to use two separate units in the playoffs rather than subbing individually. He’ll need to balance the two lineups so that one isn’t mitigating all the work the other does in their time on the court.
The Detroit Pistons fought through a lot of issues through the regular season and did achieve their season goal of making it into the postseason. It just so happens that they will have to face the new powerhouse in Milwaukee. The Bucks hold the advantage in so many ways and also will want to get this series over with as quick as possible to get as many rest days as possible before the next series. Detroit might figure out how to pull one out at home, but make no mistake. If you’re betting this series, the right pick is total domination from Wisconsin’s own. The first game tips off Sunday at 6:00 p.m. at Fiserv Forum.