DETROIT – The sea of blue and red eruptions every time Blake Griffin thundered against the basket, pulled back to a 3-point or jumped up to snatch a rebound. Detroit Pistons fans had not yet seen their franchise power forward check in this post season, and they knew he was their last best hope.
Just might have thought the fans, when they brought Griffin's name, he could deliver Detroit's first playoff victory since 2008. Deep down ̵
As it turned out, Bucks absorbed Griffin's return without another mindset, whereby a third consecutive blowout win despite a rare evening for Giannis Antetokounmpo. While some first round series have seen fluttering bugs, drafts and trash, Milwaukee has quietly detached Detroit in every turn. Bucks seems to be quietly making a statement: They mean business.
"We only have such professional, intelligent players," Brook Lopez told ESPN. "We have great depth and great trust in each other, but our focus is huge."
Bucks has predicted the importance of unrelenting focus throughout the season. It's part of what led them to a league-best 60 victory. During the season, the coach Mike Budenholzer would often write "Be Us" on the board in the Bucks closet. The term served as a reminder not to be wrapped in outside noise.
In the playoff, emphasis is placed on the concentration. Budenholzer has encouraged players to leave their families in Milwaukee during this trip or, if they come, suggested arranging them to be separated. He also advised players to cut back on television and social media.
"Bud has done a good job all season, keeping this organization family oriented", told Antetokounmpo ESPN. "If the coach doesn't want us to have our family around in two games, I think everyone can be patient and lock in."
In an exercise between Game 1 and 2, Antetokounmpo repeated the importance of focus. He explained that he had seen the defense master Golden State Warriors lose focus and renounce a 31-point lead to LA Clippers. Complacency, he warned, had no place in the Milwaukee's organization.
"You can't be sloppy," Antetokounmpo said. "When you're lazy, the basketball gods, they see the game and you have to pay for it."
The flasks made some adjustments for Game 2 after a 35-point game 1 loss when Detroit coach Dwane Casey hired more zone defenses. He placed Luke Kennard in the starting line, giving the stamps a much needed infusion of shooting.
It worked temporarily. After the first quarter of Game 1, the stamps were already down by 20; they dragged only 11 after the first quarter of Game 2. But in the end, like in the first game, Detroit began to slip and they would be lost with 21 points.
In Game 3, Griffin returned. As important as it was for Griffin to breathe life into Detroit's suffering insult, his greatest influence was on the defensive end.
But look carefully. During the game, it became clear that Griffine's knees were not quite healthy. He had a strong protective film that expanded from high thighs to the middle calf. There were times he lumbered at half speed to get back on the defense. There were other moments when a hard foul shot him to the ground, Griffin stood up as if checking that he still felt at least as good as he did when he went down. When not in court, Detroit's coaches packed both knees with black ice packs.
Blake Griffin is struggling to make sure he secures the layup and then limps out against the score table.
Still the pistons kept it close early. There were moments of excitement and chippiness: Bucks guard Sterling Brown and Pistons center Andre Drummond got forehead and spat wrong language. They were each issued a technical error for the exchange. But just like in the last two games, the stamps were finally excavated, and Bucks won 119-103.
Milwaukee's three wins have not been carbon copies. With Antetokounmpo scoring only 14 points, his fewest since January 15, Budenholzer had to search for other sources of crime. Lopez and Khris Middleton helped fill the cavity with 19 and 20 points, respectively, and Milwaukee's spread crime again caused problems for Drummond.
In Games 3, Bucks was outscored with seven points with Antetokounmpo on the floor, but eventually the stamps exceeded 23 points in the 20 minutes during which Antetokounmpo was out of the floor. And Drummond allowed Bucks to shoot 13-of-23 in Game 3 alone for 38 points, which is most points that any team have scored in any game versus anyone defending this postseason, according to ESPN Stats & Information Research.
"It's a hard, hard team," Drummond said of Bucks. "We're struggling hard, but it's an experienced team, and we're a team trying to figure it out."
The odds are good, Bucks will go away from this series victorious. But the road will only get harder from here. In Round 2, they are likely to face the Boston Celtics team that knocked them out of the playoffs last year. The longer Bucks come into playoffs, the more the egalitarian, all-hands-on-deck violation they appear in Game 3 will be necessary. And the deeper into the off season they go, the more they have to focus.
"At the end of the day, we haven't won a playoff series in a while," Antetokounmpo said. "We are hungry."