The Pistons got off to a very good start Monday night, at home, in Game 4 of their playoff series against Central division foe Milwaukee. Blake Griffin was lively; Reggie Jackson poured in 20 first-half points; the Pistons all but played Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton off the court. It was about as encouraging a first half as an eighth seed down three games to none in a playoff series could reasonably hope for, with the Pistons riding a six-point lead into the half.
And then the Bucks, stirred to life at halftime, spent the second half pounding the Pistons into the ground like a damn garden stake. Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was held to a manageable 17 first-half points on 6-of-13 shooting, erupted for 24 points in less than 15 second-half minutes, aided significantly by stricter officiating on contact in the paint. With the Pistons still up four points in the third quarter, head coach Dwane Casey was hit with a technical foul following an iffy blocking foul on Thon Maker; from that moment, the Bucks went on an incredible, breathtaking 45–10 run spanning about 13 minutes of action, to go from down 82–78 to up 123–92. Also this happened:
To the extent that anyone anywhere will bother talking about this dreary-ass series now that it’s over, part of the conversation will be about officiating. The Pistons attempted 12 free throws Monday night; Giannis, all by himself, attempted 20; the Bucks finished the game with 31 made free throws. Whatever else happens in an NBA basketball game, that kind of margin is incredibly difficult to overcome. For point of reference, only once this regular season did a team win a game in which it was outscored by 20 points at the stripe, and it was (of course) the Golden State Warriors. Tonight the Bucks outscored the Pistons at the line by 22 points. Not all of that comes down to screwy officiating—Giannis is one of the most aggressive players in basketball, and he takes a downright LeBron-ian level of punishment on drives—but the Pistons for sure noticed a discrepancy in whistles:
Ultimately that ugly disparity probably reflects some combination of Giannis being a hulking terror in the paint, plus some superstar treatment from the referees, plus the Pistons attempting more threes and midrange jumpers and shots from floater range than the Bucks, areas of the court where fouls are generally far less likely to happen than around the restricted arc. And at any rate the result of all this feels right. Under no circumstances were the Pistons going to advance to the second round. The Bucks were the best team in the Eastern Conference this season, and they swept all four games versus the Pistons in the regular season, and now they’ve swept them out of the playoffs. The Bucks won the four games of this series by 35, 21, 18, and 23 points, so these teams are not close. The best thing this series could produce is a healthy Bucks squad advancing to the second round. Mission accomplished.
The Bucks will move on to face the Celtics, who swept the Pacers in their first round series. We’ve been here before—last season these teams met in the first round of the playoffs, and played an absolutely dynamite seven-game series. The Bucks are vastly better now than they were then, with better personnel, home-court advantage, and a coach who can tie his tie without accidentally strangling himself. Oh right, plus the 2019 version of Giannis, which is all but unstoppable.