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2019 Bucks-Pistons Revisited: The Playoff Breakthrough

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“This one is over!NBA Ted, AKA Mr. Cautious, exuberantly called the Bucks’ crucial April 4th showdown in Philadelphia several minutes early. And why not be excited? Milwaukee had clinched the top seed in the Eastern Conference and NBA. The deer had waited 18 years to open the playoffs at home, and it had been just as long without a series win. Thankfully, Milwaukee fans have always been exuberant optimists, and most supporters were only wondering who the first-round victim would be. Ultimately, the Pistons rolled into the cream city ten days later. Would they leave with four flats, or would the Bucks need to dive out of the way?

Buildup

Bucks

The only drama left was if Milwaukee could clinch its first 60-win season since 1981. Mike Budenholzer judiciously limited starter minutes, but the Bucks grounded a terrible Hawks team without Trae Young for the magic round number. In the finale, a Thunder team still battling for the sixth seed edged a group of backups, except for Khris Middleton’s 17 minutes. Milwaukee was rolling yet rested and appeared poised for a long run.

Pistons

Detroit hosted Memphis on April 9th before a next-day trip to New York and had to win both to secure the postseason. Few thought the struggling Grizzlies would fight, and fewer believed Detroit could overcome a 19-point halftime deficit. However, in the franchise’s biggest second-half comeback since 1989, the Pistons again proved incentives work. Needing just one more win to clinch the eighth seed, Detroit easily defeated one of the works Knicks team ever (and that’s saying a lot!). However, the car parts hadn’t won a playoff game in 11 seasons, and with Blake Griffin battling a knee injury, pessimism ruled.

Game One: April 14th, Milwaukee

Bucks win 121-86

With Griffin out, Milwaukee raced to a 15-4 lead just 3:30 into the game. Dwane Casey called timeout, but the game was already effectively over. The contest still contained intrigue, however. An intelligent Milwaukee crowd vociferously booed Thon Maker, turning a happy day into a literal house-of-horrors for the former Buck. Later, Andre Drummond intensified negative feelings with a flagrant-2 slam-down of Giannis. (A +/- of -45 probably isn’t enough to defeat a 60-win team). Contrary to Biz Markie’s halftime olive-leaf-offering, the Pistons weren’t friends at all now. They outraged an already-awake giant.

Game Two: April 17th, Milwaukee

Bucks Win 120-99

Detroit surprised the cream city, leading Milwaukee by one at halftime. The third quarter, however, is the most difficult for battling underdogs. It’s hard to maintain the same focus after the halftime lull, and the favorite will regain its concentration. Giannis scored the first seven points of the period, and Detroit, while not giving up, couldn’t match Milwaukee’s potent offensive barrage. Griffin couldn’t play, but he picked up his second T with bench potty-mouthing. Coach Bud covets home-court because he recognizes that teams up 2-0 have already buried their opponent. Detroit wasn’t in the junkyard yet, but the Bucks were already googling mechanics.

Game Three: April 20th, Detroit

Bucks Win 119-103

When the Bucks trailed 0-2 against Boston in 2018, an incredible wave of emotion overwhelmed the Celtics in game three. However, it seemed the Pistons organization didn’t have the same passion. Milwaukee scraped to a 100-78 lead after three quarters and just needed to hold off a rugged yet under-oiled motor. The deer led 110-95 with 3:25 left when Bud called a use-it-or-lose-it timeout to keep his team sharp. Khris Middleton followed with back-to-back buckets to push the series lead to 3-0. No team had ever come back from 0-3, but with #4 seed Boston about to sweep Indiana, the Bucks couldn’t afford to relax.

Game Four: April 22nd, Detroit

Bucks Win 127-104

The team, and the city, had waited long enough. It had been almost 18 years since the 2001 Bucks stunned the old Hornets in Charlotte before reaching the East finals with a game-seven triumph. A basketball-loving yet success-starved town turned its gleaming eyes up at the TV, expecting the Pistons to fold. One fact the state knew, however, is that their soon-to-be MVP was not about to pull up even an inch. Detroit, to its credit, fought in the first half and led by six at halftime. However, the Bucks took deep breaths and charged at a vehicle running on fumes. With Giannis’s 41 points, they fulfilled their 99% inevitability. The Bucks had finished their foe and smote its ruin on the roadside. However, they still faced a legion of challengers.

Aftermath

The 2020 Pistons slumped to 20-46, grimly reminding the Bucks that “eighth seed or bust” is a losing strategy. The Bucks, however, faced a pressing concern. The Greek Freak knew he had to, “forget this moment and work for the next one, against Boston.”

Yes, the same nemesis who thwarted the 2018 Bucks and (somehow) convinced “experts” to name them East favorites. However, the scribes were partly right. LeBron James, the second-best NBA player of the last ten years, argues playoff momentum is overrated. Teams, he observes, must take each game individually and not dwell on series records. Six days after Milwaukee ended their sweep, the leprechauns surprised a young Bucks team with a 112-90 thrashing.

The future, Milwaukee discovered, is not fixed. When the ball tips in the Bucks’ next return to the playoffs, they will again be favorites. However, in a league with 29 challengers, the mountaintop climb is always steep, and Giannis and his teammates must not ease if the first leap belies a champion’s crucible.

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About Jeffrey Newholm

"Jammin Jeff" Newholm had been a basketball fanatic since his high school days, and remained a casual fan as a student in Whitewater. Wishing to check in as an active participant, he also completed a writing certificate program at UWM. He loves seeing Bucks games more than any other activity in hometown Milwaukee and especially screaming really really loudly to get someone to miss a free throw. Twitter: @JeffreyNewholm

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