DETROIT – The sea of blue and red broke out every time Blake Griffin thundered at the basket, backed off for a 3-pointer or rose to take a rebound. Detroit Pistons fans had not yet seen their franchise control before the post-season and they knew it was their last hope.
Perhaps just, they thought, barking Griffin's name, he could win the first playoff victory since 2008 in Detroit. Deep in the depths, between the cries of "De-troit basketball!" – They surely knew that the chances of seeing the Pistons, the eighth seeded, coming back to defeat the top-ranked Milwaukee Bucks were slim. But perhaps Griffin's return could also mark the return of the Battle of Detroit after two discouraging defeats to open their first-round streak.
In the end, the Bucks absorbed Griffin's return without hesitation, winning a third consecutive victory in a consecutive eruption despite an exceptional night for Giannis Antetokounmpo. While some of the first-round playoffs were characterized by blatant fouls, ejections and blatant speeches, Milwaukee calmly dismantled Detroit at every turn. The Bucks seem to make a statement: they are serious.
"We just have such professional and smart players," said Brook Lopez at ESPN. "We have a lot of depth and great trust in each other, but our goal is huge."
The Bucks have preached the importance of focusing relentlessly throughout the season. That's part of what has propelled them to one of the best 60 league wins. Throughout the season, coach Mike Budenholzer often wrote "Be Us" on the whiteboard in the Bucks locker room. The sentence served as a reminder not to get carried away by outside noise.
In the playoffs, the focus on concentration has been strengthened. Budenholzer encouraged the players to leave their families in Milwaukee during this trip or, if they came, suggested making arrangements for them to remain separately. He also advised players to reduce television and social media.
"Bud did a good job all season, now this family-oriented organization," Antetokounmpo told ESPN. "If the coach does not want our family to be with us for two games, I think everyone can be patient and stay stuck."
Antetokounmpo repeated the importance of concentration during a practice session between games 1 and 2. He explained that he had seen defending champion Golden State Warriors lose his concentration and give up a 31-point lead over the LA Clippers. Complacency, he warned, had no place in the Milwaukee organization.
"You can not be neglected," said Antetokounmpo. "When you're lazy, the basketball gods watch the game and you'll pay for it."
The Pistons made adjustments for Game 2 following a 35-point loss in Game 1, with Detroit coach Dwane Casey having used more area defense. He inserted Luke Kennard into the starting lineup, giving the Pistons a well deserved infusion of shot.
It worked temporarily. After the first quarter of the first match, the Pistons were already down 20; after the first quarter of match 2, they were only 11 points behind. But finally, just like in the first game, Detroit started sliding and lost 21 points.
In the third game, Griffin came back. As important as it was for Griffin to breathe life into the suffering Detroit offensive, his most important impact was that of defensiveness.
But look good. During the match, it became clear that Griffin's knee was not completely healthy. He wore a strong protective wrap from the high thigh to the mid-calf. There were times when he dragged himself at half speed to defend himself. There have been other times when a heavy foul has pushed him down, Griffin has risen cautiously, as if to check that he always felt at least as good as when he fell. When he was not on the ground, the Detroit coaches wrapped him in both knees with black ice packs.
Blake Griffin fights to make sure the lay-up is safe, and then he goes off to the scorer's table.
Yet the Pistons kept it early. There were moments of excitement and chills: the guard of the Bucks Sterling Brown and the center of the Pistons, Andre Drummond, have their brow against the forehead and spit a foul language. They each received a technical foul for the exchange. But just like in the last two games, the Pistons have finally collapsed and the Bucks have won 119-103.
Milwaukee's three wins are not true copies. As Antetokounmpo scored only 14 points, his smallest since January 15, Budenholzer had to look for other sources of offense. Lopez and Khris Middleton helped fill the gap with 19 and 20 points, respectively, and Milwaukee's spreading offense again caused trouble for Drummond.
In the third game, the Bucks were seven points behind Antetokounmpo on the ground, but they finally outscored the Pistons by 23 points in the 20 minutes Antetokounmpo was on the ground. And Drummond allowed the Bucks to shoot 13 of the 23 games in the third game alone for 38 points, the most points any team scored in any match against any defenseman this post-season, according to research from ESPN Stats & Information.
"It's a tough team," said Drummond about the Bucks. "We are fighting hard, but it's an experienced team, and we're a team that's trying to understand."
Chances are good that the Bucks are coming away victorious from this series. But the road will only be harder here. In the second round, they will probably face the Boston Celtics – the team that eliminated them from the playoffs last year. The more the Bucks advance in the playoffs, the more egalitarian offensive at hand that they posted in the third game will be necessary. And the more they go in the post-season, the more they will have to concentrate.
"At the end of the day, we have not won a playoff in a while," said Antetokounmpo. "We are hungry."