With LeBron James heading to the Los Angeles Lakers this past offseason and leaving the Eastern Conference for the first time in his career, a team led by someone other than King James will represent the East in the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010.
Many predicted it would be the Boston Celtics and their youthful roster led by Finals veteran Kyrie Irving. The 76ers were a dark horse candidate as well, as “The Process” was thought to have come to fruition. 2014 Finals Most Valuable Player Kawhi Leonard left San Antonio for Toronto.
But none of those teams dominated the regular season quite like the top seeded Milwaukee Bucks. Led by MVP-frontrunner Giannis Antetokounmpo, they went an NBA-best 60–22 and will have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. This puts them in the driver’s seat to be the first team since 2010 other than the Miami Heat or Cleveland Cavaliers to be playing in June versus the best of the West.
They begin this postseason looking to win their first playoff series since the 2000-01 campaign, when they advanced to the conference finals.
The first team standing in their way, the Detroit Pistons, went 41-41 and squeaked into the playoffs by beating the Memphis Grizzlies and New York Knicks in their final two games of the regular season. Those two teams went a combined 50-114.
Detroit is making their first playoff appearance since 2015-2016, but are looking for their first postseason victory since 2008.
They got the 8-seed in their first season under head coach Dwane Casey, who was fired by the Raptors last offseason. Led by Blake Griffin, who may have had the best season of his career after averaging a career-high 24.5 points per game, and Andre Drummond, who led the league in rebounds with 15.6 per game, this is a team that relies heavily on their frontcourt.
When these two teams met during the regular season, it wasn’t very competitive as the Bucks swept the season series 4-0 and won by an average of 14.8 points per game. Only one contest was decided by single digits, which came in December, when the Pistons lost at home 107-104.
While this series predicts to not be very competitive either, Detroit has a few things to hang their hat on.
First, they somewhat contained Antetokounmpo.
While “The Greek Freak” dominated the National Basketball Association all year, he was actually held in check by the Pistons. On the season he averaged 27.7 points per game (3rd in the NBA), 12.5 rebounds per game (6th in the NBA), and 5.9 assists per game. But in his four contests against Detroit, he only averaged 20.8 PPG, 8.8 RPG and 7 APG.
Next, they are a lot healthier than the Bucks.
Milwaukee will be without Pau Gasol (ankle), Donte DiVincenzo (heel), and Malcolm Brogdon (foot). Tony Snell (foot) is questionable for the first two games of the series and Nikola Mirotic (thumb) is a game-time decision for Game 1 as he has missed the past eleven games.
Detroit’s only injury concern, albeit a big one, is Griffin. He has been battling a left knee injury the past couple weeks of the season and missed the season finale against the Knicks and was limited in the game against the Grizzlies.
Detroit backed into the playoffs after going 4-7 over their last eleven contests. Griffin is banged up at the worst possible time after being healthy for the entire season.
Milwaukee is loaded offensively with Antetokounmpo, 2019 All-Star (and former Piston) Khris Middleton and explosive guard Eric Bledsoe. They led the league in scoring with over 118 points per game and will be tough to stop.
If Detroit wants to have any shot at winning this series (or a game for that matter), they will have to force Antetokounmpo to shoot from the outside. While that is easier said than done, as he can seemingly get to the basket whenever he pleases, that has to be a major part of the defensive strategy as he shot an abysmal 25.6% from downtown in the regular season.
Also, Drummond will have to step up his play. While he averaged a career-high 17.3 points per game and led the league in rebounding for the third time in his career, he stumbled against the Bucks. In his four games against Milwaukee, he only averaged 13.8 PPG and over five less rebounds per contest.
I think this should be a pretty easy round for the Bucks in their quest for a championship and have a good chance to sweep the Pistons in the regular season and postseason. But I will predict a win in Game 3 for the Pistons as Little Caesar’s Arena will host its first ever playoff game (basketball or hockey, as the Pistons share the arena with the Detroit Red Wings) after being opened in 2017 and Griffin scores over 30 in front of the home crowd.
Prediction: Bucks in 5.
All stats are courtesy of ESPN.com and Basketball-Reference.com.