MILWAUKEE — A few minutes into Game 1 between the Milwaukee Bucks and Detroit Pistons, Giannis Antetokounmpo took off on the fastbreak, weaved his way past the defense and scooped home an and-one layup off the glass. Pounding his chest in celebration a few seconds later, the camera caught him proclaiming, “I’m f—— unstoppable.”
That he was, finishing with 24 points, 17 rebounds and four assists in just 23 minutes. So too were the Bucks, who dismantled the visiting Pistons, 121-86 to take a 1-0 lead in the series. If it were possible to win a seven-game series in just one game, the Bucks, who led by 43 at one point, accomplished as much on Sunday evening. And in the process, made a statement to the rest of the Eastern Conference.
After two of the other contenders in the East, the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers, opened up their first-round series by losing at home to lower seeded-teams on Saturday, the Bucks made sure there would be no upset taking place at Fiserv Forum. Only four minutes in, they were already up 20-4, and they never looked back. It was the type of performance that cemented their status as the team to beat in the East, and served as a wake-up call to casual fans who may not have been paying attention throughout the regular season: the Bucks are a certified problem.
Unsurprisingly though, the Bucks’ star man wasn’t interested in giving anyone bulletin board material after the game. “I think we did a great job setting the tone, playing hard together,” Giannis said when he arrived at the podium. “The Pistons are a really good team, but we knew we needed to set the tone, and we were able to get a win tonight.” But for as much as Giannis and the Bucks prefer to downplay their achievements, there was no denying their dominance in Game 1.
If Blake Griffin’s absence wasn’t a warning that the Pistons were in big trouble in this game, Dwane Casey’s decision on the defensive end mid-way through the first quarter certainly was. Already down by double digits, the Pistons did something they haven’t done all season — they switched to a zone defense. It didn’t work, of course; nothing they tried throughout the night could slow down the Bucks’ attack. Not even their attempts to be physical with the potential MVP on the other side.
Thon Maker, a former Giannis protege, had a hard foul on his old teammate reviewed, but it remained a common foul. Later on, though, Andre Drummond wasn’t so lucky. The big man was ejected in the third quarter after chucking the Greek Freak while he was in mid-air. Drummond finished an atrocious minus-45 in 26 minutes. Even Blake Griffin, who wasn’t actually playing, took things too far and was called for a technical from the bench during the Drummond review.
“They’re a great team,” Casey said after the loss. “We didn’t meet the level of physicality, then we got some cheap fouls. But we have to get up to their speed of the game. They’re a great team… We have to get our level of competitiveness up to start the game, because you can’t let a great team like this get that many points early and expect to get back into it.”
With Giannis leading the way, the Bucks did whatever they wanted on the offensive end, scoring all but four of their baskets either in the paint or behind the 3-point line. And on the defensive end, they baited the Pistons into far too many mid-range shots, while Brook Lopez allowed nothing at the rim.
“It was great,” Khris Middleton said of the Bucks’ defensive performance. “I think we were physical without fouling, Brook [Lopez] did a great job contesting the rim, rebounding, and taking Andre Drummond off the glass. I think as a group we all had each other’s backs. Everybody did their job.”
While Casey is correct about the Pistons needing to increase their intensity and focus moving forward, it’s unlikely to matter. As they found out on Sunday, they aren’t good enough to compete in this series, even if Griffin is on the court. Not many teams in the East are.
This Bucks group is “special,” as Lopez put it in the locker room after the game. And as they made clear against the Pistons, they aren’t messing around. Forget winning their first playoff series since 2001, the Bucks just might be “f—— unstoppable.”