Opponent Scouting: Milwaukee Bucks. (60-22)
The playoffs are here! Please note that this is a whole series preview, there will be individual game previews as well.
The Milwaukee Bucks are phenomenal, by almost every metric they have been the best team in basketball all season long. They finished the season with the 4th best offensive efficiency in the NBA by scoring 113.5 points per 100 possessions. This will butt against the Pistons 12th ranked defensive efficiency that has allowed 108.6 points per 100 possessions.
On the other end of the floor, the Bucks finished the season as the NBA’s best defense, allowing just 104.9 points per 100 possessions. Given that the Pistons rank just 21st in the NBA by scoring 108.1 points per 100 possessions, points will be hard to come by for Detroit.
These combine to give the Bucks a net rating of +8.6 points per 100 possessions, the best mark in the NBA by 2.2 points per 100 possessions over 2nd place Golden State and a full 9 points per 100 possessions better than the Detroit Pistons averaged this season (the Pistons finished -.4).
The Bucks have few weaknesses in any area. They are the 4th best rebounding team in basketball, rebounding 51.6% of all misses, and the 2nd best defensive rebounding team in the NBA. They are lower in offensive rebounding (26th) as Mike Budenholzer is a big believer in punting on offensive rebounds to cut off transition opportunities. This strategy works well as the Bucks allow less fast break points per game than any other team.
This rebounding area will be the one spot where it will be a real battle of strengths. The Bucks are an elite defensive rebounding squad, and Giannis’ ability to pull down boards and run makes them the 6th most potent transition team in the NBA. The Pistons are also elite in these same areas however due to the human cheat code known as Andre Drummond. Most teams choose between offensive rebounding and getting back on defense to snuff out transition points, the Pistons can do both. Drummond allows the Pistons to rank 5th in the NBA in transition defense while also being the 5th best offensive rebounding team in basketball.
The Bucks are a highly modern offense, it isn’t that complicated but it is deadly. Give Giannis the ball, and put shooters around him. The Bucks take 3-pointers at the 3rd highest rate in the entire NBA, with 41.9% of all field-goal attempts coming from beyond the arc, although they only rank 15th, dead average, in three-point shooting percentage. This will be another area where it is strength against strength, as the Pistons allowed fewer three-pointers than any team in basketball this season and opponents had the 9th worst shooting percentage from deep against the Pistons. These first two points will be the two main areas where the Pistons will have to find their advantage, if Drummond can force offensive rebounds without letting Giannis run wild in transition and they can cut off the 3-point shooting they will be able to make this competitive. This of course, easier said than done because of the Greek Freak.
The Greek Freak
The Bucks are, of course, led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is incredible. Just check out this stat-line: 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.5 blocks, and he’s scoring those 27.7 points on a true shooting percentage of 64.4%(!!!!). There are 6 guys in the entire NBA with better scoring efficiency this season, and 5 of them are low-usage big men who basically only dunk lobs, with the 6th being low-usage sharp-shooter Joe Harris. To maybe put this in better perspective, you know how everyone writes and talks about how Stephen Curry has started this revolution by blending volume and efficiency like no player ever? Giannis scored slightly more points on slightly better efficiency. The man is absurd. He leads the NBA in unassisted dunks by a mile (has more on his own than many teams) and is such a purely athletic freak that it doesn’t matter he can’t shoot.
There are some small holes to poke in his game though even through the absurd statistical profile. First off, Giannis is not actually that great of a passer, 5.9 assists is decent but not great for a guy who has the ball so much and he also averages 3.7 turnovers per game. For anyone wondering, out of a good facilitator, you are usually looking to have at least 2 assists per turnover. That turnover ratio is slightly inflated because he commits more charges than any other player, but many of the fancy-stats trackers rate him towards the bottom of pass accuracy and creating for others. To be clear, Giannis is not a bad passer, but he isn’t a great one. He often gets tunnel vision, and will struggle to make reads when forced to do much more than the basics. As stated above, a key will be to try and keep him out of transition and work out of the half-court, where it is easier to force him into being a passer. He still may well beat you like that, but you stand a much better chance that way.
There are a couple of other small holes to poke as well, based on his per-game stats you would think that Giannis is such a monster rebounder that Andre will have met his match, while this isn’t totally untrue, Giannis is not quite as dominant a rebounder as the numbers suggest. Like many other stars, when he totally commits to getting a rebound he can often unfurl his condor arms and snag it with his huge hands, but his rebounding numbers are inflated a bit by the Bucks scheme. He (like the team as a whole) doesn’t get many offensive rebounds, and they scheme to allow him to snag lots of defensive rebounds so that he can grab and go straight into transition. Once again, Giannis is still a very good rebounder and he will snag at least a few contested rebounds from Andre, but his rebounding isn’t the threat of some guys who put up similar numbers.
The last thing, is that Giannis relies pretty heavily on drawing fouls. Once again, the only guys who draw fouls more regularly are low-usage bigs. This, in a vacuum, doesn’t matter that much, but the playoffs tend to not be as willing to yield fouls, and he wouldn’t be the first superstar to struggle in the playoffs when the whistles don’t come as easily. For all this said, he’s already the exception to the rules, my guess is that he will continue to be that in the playoffs. And even if his production is slightly mitigated, they have the perfect compliment.
Former Piston Khris Middleton is the second banana, or third depending on who you ask these days but alas, and he is the perfect fit next to Giannis. Middleton has quietly puttered along next to the Freak, he finally made an all-star game this season but he’s largely been overlooked in his career. This season he averaged 18.3 points, a slight decrease from last season, and 4.4 assists. He is a sniper from deep who’s got a smooth and quick release and is tall enough at 6’8 to shoot over smaller guys. The further key though, is that Middleton has exactly the sort of slow-it-down isolation scoring game that perfectly compliments Giannis’ mad-runs to the basket. When teams cut off Giannis in transition, Middleton can step in as the classic matchup problem isolation scorer. He’s 6’8 but largely plays shooting guard or small-forward, he can back down smaller guys and drop mid-rangers over them all day. Ask Celtics fans about last seasons 7-game series and they will rave about Middleton, who scored 24.7 points per game as the Bucks hunted mismatches in the half-court constantly. Middleton’s old-man style game is challenging to guard, and even more challenging when teams usually have their best wing defender trying to hold Giannis. Middleton is only a middling defender, he knows how to use his length but he just isn’t that quick. But he will likely be a huge issue for the Pistons undersized wing rotation. His points are down a bit this season largely thanks to the full integration of their point-guard Eric Bledsoe.
The numbers don’t really stand out that much for Bledsoe: 15.9 points, 5.5 assists, 4.6 rebounds, 1.5 steals. TS% of 57%. You wouldn’t be crazy to see that stat-line and wonder what exactly separates him from, say, Reggie Jackson, especially given that Bledsoe shot just 33% from deep. The difference is that Bledsoe is one of the very best defenders at his position in basketball, his bullish strength and long arms terrorize opponents. On offense he’s finally become a really solid passer, the 5.5 assists are against just 2.1 turnovers, and his bullish inside game is another incredibly tough thing to stop. After their top three guys, they are a little injured right now but have a bunch of good players.
The Supporting Cast:
Malcolm Brogdon, who is very good, is not going to play. Neither is Nikola Mirotic, who is also very good. Tony Snell has missed a few games, I’m not sure if he is going to be ready for this series or not, and Pau Gasol (who wasn’t really playing anyways) is not supposed to be available.
The first guy to talk about is Brook Lopez, who the Lakers stupidly let walk for reasons that became a lot more clear with Magic’s comical stepping down. Lopez is a shooter these days, on offense he operates not unlike a taller Anthony Tolliver, he pulls without hesitation, sets screens, and generally spaces the floor. The danger with Lopez is that he still has the ability to go and get his own if he needs too. Mike Budenholzer has long been a coach who hates to post up and generally isn’t in favor of isolation ball in its various sorts, so it will be interesting to see how willing they are to let Lopez hung mismatches in the playoffs. Defensively he isn’t that remarkable, he can’t really jump, but he’s big and is usually in the right place, and blocks shots. He is highly vulnerable to switches on the perimeter.
I’m not sure who they will start at the last spot with Brogdon and Mirotic hurt. Tony Snell, if he is ready, could slot in. Snell is long, pretty strong, and can hit shots if he’s open but doesn’t do a lot else. Sterling Brown started several games at the end of the season, he’s listed at 6’6 but he’s a bull who is a good shooter and tough defender. Former Piston Ersan Ilyasova could slot in as well, he’s the same as he’s always been, a silky-smooth shooter and mediocre defender who takes a ton of charges.
George Hill will likely be pressed into significant minutes without Brogdon and he’s mostly been poor with the Bucks, his shot has abandoned him and he doesn’t move that well anymore. Still, he’s a veteran who has good length and has been in a lot of playoff battles. Former Michigan standout DJ Wilson will likely get some run as he has settled into a comfortable role as a athletic 3-point shooting forward, Pat Connaughton has carved out a role for himself as well and he is s decent shooter and athlete. Tim Frazier was a late addition to the squad, he can shoot but doesn’t do much else, sort of your typical journey-man point guard.
This team is not quite as scary as they would be if totally healthy, Brogdon was probably their 4th best player and best role-player, and Mirotic is a killer stretch 4 next to Giannis. Brodgon’s injury is more impactful though, without Mirotic they can turn to a slightly worse version of him in Ilyasova and just play more Giannis at the 4, without Brogdon it forces George Hill, who once again looks like he’s on his way out of the league, and Tim Frazier to play big minutes. The injuries also leave them more dependent on their big 3 than before.
That said, this team is still terrifying. They are the best in basketball, a well-oiled machine fueled by a freak who bends all the rules to his will.
Matchups to watch:
Blake vs. Health: Blake missed the season finale, and looked totally hobbled to the point he was a detriment to the team in the last two games he played. There’s been some conflicting reports about how bad the injury is, but it will have an impact. Will he even play? If he does play will he be any good at all or will he sabotage the Pistons with his lack of movement? I’m not optimistic here, but it will be a big part of the series.
Pistons vs. Giannis: I have no clue what they are going to do here. Their pitifully small wing rotation will stand no chance at all, Thon is big enough but not strong enough and will probably foul out in a quarter, Andre is their best option but you can’t risk him getting into foul trouble. Their best option is probably to heavily focus on keeping him out of transition, overplay him, and tell Thon, Glenn Robinson, and maybe even Jon Leuer to use their fouls and pray for the best.
Playoff Thon: This isn’t a joke. It’s a real thing, and the Pistons better hope it continues. Thon has been hugely impressive in both his visits to the playoffs. Whatever it is, if he can channel it into being a even semi-respectable defender of Giannis it would do a great deal for the Pistons. This is especially true if Blake doesn’t play or plays limited minutes.
Pistons vs. Khris Middleton: Same story as Giannis just not quite as scary. The Pistons wing rotation is pitifully small, Middleton lives off of exactly that. The Pistons will really miss Stanley Johnson and Reggie Bullock in this series.
Bruce Brown vs. Eric Bledsoe: The one guy who the Pistons have a good (on paper) matchup for! This should be fun, both ferocious athletes who are strong, tough, aggressive, and love to talk. The Pistons are going to probably need a lot of Bruce in their effort to at least hold one of the Bucks big-three in check.
Andre Drummond vs. Being superman: If Blake is out or hobbled, Andre Drummond has to basically be perfect. The Bucks almost never put non-shooters on the floor so he will have to balance between plugging the holes of the Pistons incredibly leaky perimeter defense without giving up endless open threes. He also cannot get into foul-trouble. If he goes out with foul trouble the Pistons are totally cooked. The good news is that, as stated in the opening, if he can cause issues on the offensive glass it will put a huge kink in one of the Bucks best weapons.
Reggie Jackson vs. Digging deep: Had a couple of bad games to finish the season before finishing strong against the Knicks. He’s had a knack for showing up in the playoffs in the past, but that was a while ago now. Especially with Blake hobbled or out, Jackson will have to be sharp. Find the right balance of forcing his own offense without making dumb decisions, and he will have to do it with Eric Bledsoe hounding him.
Ish Smith vs. Being good: Ish has his ups and downs, and appearing in the playoffs as a rotation player for the first time (he’s been in the playoffs but never played more than 11 minutes total in a series) they need him to be on target. With the injuries, the Bucks bench could be a bit of a weak-spot, the Pistons need their bench to play well enough to gain ground and at least force the Bucks to extend their starters.
Luke vs. Letting it fly: Let’s do it Luke. Finished with two great games, and the Pistons need more. When Luke is really cooking the Pistons become a different kind of animal, and he should be able to mostly dodge the Bucks better defenders.
Pistons wings vs. Hitting shots: Tack the Luke bit into here as well, the Pistons wing rotation is pitifully small and generally bad at defense. The only way the Pistons will have a chance is if their wings can avoid getting totally outplayed, and the only way that happens is if they hit shots. Between Wayne Ellington, Luke Kennard, and Langston Galloway they have the shooters, but they cannot afford to go cold. The Pistons best chance to steal a game will be having those guys catch fire and pour in threes.
Dwane Casey vs. Proving us wrong: This man has been one of the most inept playoff coaches I have ever seen. The degree to which the Raptors fell apart in the playoffs, often behind Casey’s total inability to make adjustments, cannot be overstated. The difference in team ability is so large that it probably doesn’t much matter who their coach is, but if it looks like Casey never learned from getting fired in Toronto it would kill a lot of the good vibes. For instance, it’s been about two months since the Nets first slaughtered the Pistons by tossing a basic zone at them, the Pistons never found anything to do for a zone with the Grizzlies killing them with it in the second to last game of the season. There’s a good chance the Bucks come out in a zone and the Pistons never manage 90 in any games. HOWEVA, if Casey has learned from the past, and has adjustments ready, we would all feel a lot better about the future.
Us vs. Enjoying this: Made it this far, especially if Blake is out/hobbled they really stand no chance, but try to have fun anyways. And don’t be afraid to interact with Bucks fans because in my experience they are some of the best fans across the NBA.
So if the Pistons are going to get killed anyways, what are the main things we should hope to see?
Coaching adjustments: Said it above, but yeah. If the Bucks bust out a zone and the Pistons never figure it out, it would put a real damper on things.
Andre Drummond balling: The best takeaway from the regular season was that Blake and Andre were both great and the Pistons were +5.1 per 100 possessions when they shared the floor. For all the other crap, we know for a fact that you can build a worthwhile team around these two. Even if Blake is hobbled and the Pistons get blown out, root for Andre to show out and continue to show that he really has arrived.
Luke in the big moment: There’s been times where he’s shied from big moments, been other times he has totally embraced them. Root for Luke to get into it in one of these games and hit some big shots because that matters for a young player.
Playoff Thon: Already talked about it but yeah. It’s a real thing.
Try and steal a game: Make it tough is really all you can hope for especially if Blake is hobbled. Losing a series to the best team in basketball when your best player is out/hobbled is not anything to be ashamed of, hope that they show out and compete.
Enjoy the Bucks too! Look, if you can’t enjoy watching the Bucks I’m not sure what to tell you. Even if they are killing the Pistons, enjoy watching that team play.
So in conclusion…
Wink knowingly at your friends if:
It was all an act to lull the Bucks into confidence, Blake Griffin arrives in game 1 and dunks all over everyone in the opening possession and is here to mess up everyone’s day.
Andre’s offensive rebounding is keeping the Bucks out of transition.
Charge-taking expert Blake Griffin gets Giannis into foul-trouble.
The Piston wings get hot from deep.
Thon is everywhere on defense.
The Pistons manage to steal either game on the road.
Run for the hills if:
Blake tries to play but clearly has no business being on the floor.
Andre gets into foul trouble.
Giannis is getting into transition.
Khris Middleton looks like he’s taking warm-up jumpers over the Piston wings.
Reggie Jackson tries to do too much.
The Bucks throw in any wrinkles and the Pistons have no answer.
Opportunities for me to look stupid:
Andre Drummond plays brilliantly. I don’t know what numbers he will put up, rebounds might be down a bit since he will have to defend outside a bunch. But still.
Luke Kennard has one game where he hits several clutch shots.
Reggie Jackson plays within himself and turns in a really solid series.
Blake Griffin doesn’t play till the series comes back to Detroit and the Pistons get at least one monster half from him.
The Pistons are clearly outmatched, but steal one game when their wings get red-hot and they hit 20 threes as a team.
PISTONS IN 6.