The NBA playoffs begin in just a couple short days, and it’s been quite a ride for the Detroit Pistons this season.
The Pistons reached their low point towards the end of January, falling to 21-28 with a 105-115 loss to the contending Milwaukee Bucks on the 29th. Around this time, many were very low on the team and started moving their attention towards how high of a draft pick the Pistons could land in June’s draft (admittedly, myself included). The team looked lost, performing like one of the very worst teams in the league, and it seemed as if the team needed to reset.
Just prior to the trade deadline, however, the Pistons started what would end up being one of the winningest runs of any team in the NBA this season. Following an awful second-half performance against the Los Angeles Clippers in which the Pistons blew a seemingly un-blowable 25-point lead, Detroit responded with a dominant 129-103 win against one of the league’s best teams in the Denver Nuggets. Following that performance, the Pistons became one of the most deadly offenses in the NBA. This led to a 12-2 stretch between the Nuggets victory and a March 10 victory over the Chicago Bulls. This run catapulted Detroit back over .500 and into prime playoff positioning, setting up what became a five-team race for the bottom three playoff spots in the Eastern Conference between the Pistons, Brooklyn Nets, Miami Heat, Orlando Magic, and Charlotte Hornets.
Charlotte and Orlando’s hot streaks paired with Detroit going ice cold prior to the closing week of the season made the late-seed playoff race in the east much more interesting in the final games, no doubt. Despite this, the Pistons eventually took advantage of one of the lighter schedules to close out the campaign, knocking off the Memphis Grizzlies’ C-team (barely) and the pitiful New York Knicks (very handily).
With Blake Griffin not able to play to his usual All-NBA caliber standards that we’ve gotten accustomed to seeing this year when a left knee injury became too much, it was Andre Drummond (the NBA’s leader in rebounds per game and total rebounds again, FYI) who picked up the slack. In the end, Detroit made it to the postseason led by Drummond’s elite play, albeit by just making it in at exactly .500. The finish would set the Pistons up for a first-round matchup with the conference-leading Milwaukee Bucks.
The Milwaukee Bucks have exceeded even the highest of expectations set for them this season, as Coach of the Year candidate Mike Budenholzer has seemingly unlocked the true potential of his team alongside Giannis Antekounmpo, arguably the toughest player in the entire association to contain on a nightly basis.
The Bucks are a team nobody wants to see in the playoffs, regardless of the roster you have. A frontrunning MVP candidate and one of the league’s most utterly dominate players in Antetokounmpo leads a team filled with athletes, elite shooters, and suffocating defenders that frequently ran opponents off the court in the regular season.
It’s already known that the Pistons have an extreme lack of size on the wings, and the trio of Giannis, Khris Middleton, and Malcolm Brogdon will emphasize how much of a dire need it is going into next season. Both Brogdon (who will miss a portion of the series due to injury, if not all) and Middleton are elite shooters from beyond the three-point line while also both boasting an above-average defense that seems to go under-the-radar with most of the attention on the Greek Freak. While a starting lineup that includes all three of Brogdon, Middleton, and Giannis would be considered the team’s “small ball” lineup due to the team’s surplus of size throughout the roster, it’s still more than the Pistons can handle. Wayne Ellington and Bruce Brown, both standing at 6 foot 5 and about 200 pounds, would be tasked with guarding the bigger, 6 foot 5, 230-pound Brogdon and the 6 foot 8, 220-pound Middleton on the wings. The Bucks’ elite ball movement would also force the two wings to be swapped onto the monstrous 6 foot 11 Antetokounmpo, a mismatch the Pistons will lose every single time. With Brogdon out, the Bucks have more size to replace him with in Tony Snell, a near 40 percent 3-point shooter in his own respect.
Meanwhile, Eric Bledsoe has revitalized himself to become a seamless fit next to Giannis after struggling last season, returning to being known as one of the more explosive and tenacious point guards in the NBA. Bledsoe has proven to be a problem to defend for Reggie Jackson in each of the teams’ four meetings this season, averaging an impressive 20.5 points and 6.5 assists against the Pistons this year. That kind of production coming from the third scoring option on offense is a scary sight for any opponent in a postseason series:
Milwaukee’s big men could cause problems for Detroit as well, despite the Pistons boasting one of the most talented frontcourts in the NBA. Brook Lopez has been known as a consistent “Piston killer” dating back to his days with the Brooklyn Nets, as his polished post game and vastly improved three-point shot has given Andre Drummond fits throughout his career.
Similarly, the trio of skilled European bigs residing on Milwaukee’s bench could cause fits for the rail-thin Thon Maker and slow-footed Zaza Pachulia. Newly-acquired Nikola Mirotic and former Piston Ersan Ilyasova are always a threat for 15-plus points off the bench with their formidable shooting, making it possible that the quicker Glenn Robinson III would get a shot at guarding them if this does become a matchup. Pau Gasol, while aging and playing very limited minutes, would likely get his chance to go at Pachulia if the Pistons continue to refuse to remove him from the rotation come playoff time.
Admittedly, it’s hard to see the Pistons making this anything more than a gentlemen’s sweep for the Bucks, especially with Griffin seemingly not anywhere near 100 percent, as Milwaukee is shooting for their first NBA championship since the days of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson.
Regardless, there are plenty of positives to take away from this roller-coaster ride of a season, aside from a playoff appearance in itself. Bruce Brown was unearthed as a mid-second rounder and became the team’s best perimeter defender once Stanley Johnson was ousted at the deadline, and looks to be a draft day steal. Blake Griffin experienced his most healthy season since 2012-13 (last two weeks notwithstanding) along with new skillset being showcased on an entirely different level than most were expecting. Luke Kennard showed flashes of being a potential 20-point per game scorer in the future, further proving that he is far from just “not Donovan Mitchell”. Andre Drummond put to rest many of his doubters, as he placed himself firmly in the discussion of the best centers in the association with a borderline elite defense, keeping his free throw percentage consistent (while also being very clutch at the stripe late-game) and continuing his blazingly-fast path up the all-time rebounding ranks.
It wasn’t a perfect season, but no one was expecting perfection (except some parts of Pistons Twitter) from this roster. However, Dwane Casey led this team to the playoffs in his inaugural season as head coach, fun times were had, improvements came from nearly every part of the roster, and progress was made – and that’s really all we can ask for.
Featured Image: Paul Sancya/Associated Press