At halftime of Game 4 in the Bucks-Pistons first-round series, Milwaukee found itself down six and on the verge of squandering the chance to match their potential second-round opponents (the Celtics) in sweeping away an inconsequential foe. Giannis and co. had taken not just a 3-0 lead in the series to that point, but a violently commanding one: the Bucks won the first three games by a combined 72 points, although nearly half that margin came courtesy of a stupendously lopsided 121-86 victory in Game 1.
At the half on Monday night, though, Detroit appeared to be setting itself up for the dreaded “gentleman’s sweep,” a terrible concept that implies that the most honorable thing for a team to do is extend a clearly uncompetitive series in the name of sneaking one into the win column. Thankfully for everyone involved, Milwaukee remembered that it was by far the better team in the series—and that it has the best player in the playoffs in Giannis Antetokounmpo, who finished with 41 points—blitzing the Pistons 71-42 in the second half. The Bucks left with a comfortable and decisive 127-104 win, and a clean sweep.
Whichever team escaped the Eastern Conference morass with the eighth and final playoff spot was always going to be facing a ludicrous challenge. The Bucks finished the season with the best record in the NBA, and their modernized five-out offense is built in part to let Giannis obliterate teams with clear flaws. That’s exactly what he did, and we should be glad that it happened as swiftly and brutally as it did.
Detroit fans would have likely clung to a meaningless Game 4 win in a season that had few other notable high points, and they’d have been right to do so. But also who, or who besides our own Lauren Theisen, cares about that? For the majority of the NBA-watching public, the real playoffs begin in the second round; it’s not that the first round is a waste of time, it’s just that there’s no reason to waste any more time with it than necessary. The Bucks did their part, just as the Celtics did theirs, and now both will get a nice rest before kicking off what will almost certainly not be a sweep in the Eastern semifinals on Sunday.
As it turned out, Monday delivered proof of how much worse it can be. The Houston Rockets shit the bed on Monday with a horrendous fourth quarter that ensured that this series, while also clearly over, will nevertheless go at least 48 more minutes. Those 48 minutes will matter more for Houston than most teams, because of the fragility of Chris Paul and the challenge that awaits them in the second round in the form of the Warriors. To fulfill their potential as Golden State’s most formidable opponent, Houston will need to be both well-rested and healthy. A sweep of the Jazz would have gone a long way towards achieving that end, but they couldn’t make it happen.
Could this be the first series ever where a team comes back from 3-0, though? No, it couldn’t be, and please stop it. Houston is not the team that got outscored 31-12 in the fourth quarter on Monday; the Rockets have more firepower than Utah by several orders of magnitude, and should by rights close this out in Game 5. But unlike the Bucks, who capitalized on the chance to drop their mildly annoying opponents in the dumpster, the Rockets will now have to put Paul in the line of fire again, and rely on James Harden to carry the team around again.
This is not a unilateral call for more sweeps. We know what can happen if a series is 3-1 (provided it was 2-1 at some point). That’s good. But no NBA team has ever come back from a 3-0 series deficit, and for good reason: it is nigh impossible to win four straight games in the NBA Playoffs, especially when you’re clearly the inferior team, and you don’t lose the first three games unless that’s the case.
No team is going to roll over just because they’re down 3-0, and they shouldn’t. So consider this more a plea to the power halves of these match-ups: don’t coast. Don’t allow even a glimmer of hope to blossom. Don’t be the Rockets. Be the Bucks instead, and seize the opportunity to chuck your over-matched opponents into the garbage can where they belong.