Niyo: Pistons look for 'Playoff Thon' to make another mark

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Thon Maker (7) will be facing his former team when the Pistons take on the Bucks in the playoffs.

Auburn Hills — There’s no phone booth where he changes uniforms. There’s no magic formula, either.

And if you ask Thon Maker, there’s really no secret to these surprising postseason performances early in his NBA career.

“Man, I don’t know what they’re talking about (with) ‘Playoff Thon,’” Maker said Friday, laughing after the Pistons’ finished a two-hour practice ahead of Sunday’s Eastern Conference opener in Milwaukee. “It’s just I went from a period of not playing to a period of playing in the playoffs. I guess that’s what they were talking about.”

Maybe he’s right. But amid all the guesswork surrounding Blake Griffin’s injury status heading into Game 1 against the Bucks, go ahead and mark Maker down as a player to watch as the Pistons prepare for a daunting task against his former team.

“The moment does not bother him,” Pistons head coach Dwane Casey said. “He performed well for Milwaukee in the playoffs. Now he’s on the other side.”

Acquired from the Bucks in a trade-deadline deal for Stanley Johnson two months ago, the spindly, 7-foot-1 Maker just might play an outsized role in this series, whether as a starter in place of Griffin — as he was a handful of times down the stretch in the regular season — or in his more customary role as a high-energy reserve off the bench.

Whatever the case, Maker figures to draw the unenviable task of guarding his close friend and budding NBA superstar, Giannis Antetokounmpo, in Milwaukee. And whenever he’s on the court, he’ll have an opportunity to remind the Bucks what they gave up on when they finally agreed to ship the former lottery pick to Detroit.

Not that he’s admitting to that last part serving as any kind of added incentive, mind you.

“It’s the playoffs,” Maker said. “If you’re not already motivated from that, I don’t know what will motivate you. It’s the playoffs. That’s all I can say about that.”

Locking in

Don’t bother asking him about the series as a whole, either. Because if there’s one thing that Maker has discovered about playoff basketball his first two years in the league — including last year’s seven-game tug-of-war with the Boston Celtics — it’s probably this: When the stakes go up, the focus has to narrow.

“This is the best time of the year,” said Maker, one of only four Pistons — Zaza Pachulia, Glenn Robinson III and Jose Calderon are the others — to have played in the playoffs each of the last two seasons. “There’s no injuries, there’s no holding back. You literally have to leave everything on the floor.

“That’s why I said it’s gonna be a good game. Because I’m not thinking about the whole series. I’m thinking about the first game. Everybody has to think about the first game.”

So what does he think about the task of guarding Antetokounmpo? The NBA’s leading MVP candidate averaged nearly 28 points, 13 rebounds and six assists this season while leading the Bucks to a league-best 60 wins. He also spent countless hours the last few years working out with Maker and Pistons assistant coach Sean Sweeney when both were in Milwaukee. 

“Sweeney tried to make us kill each other, but it was really fun,” Maker said. “We’ve been playing 1-on-1 for so many years. So it’s gonna be flashbacks of those when I get over there, defending him. But it’s not like it’s a one-man effort. You gotta have the whole team locked in. He commands a lot.”

High energy

Still, it says plenty about Maker’s unique skill set that this is even a conversation.

Maker’s not an elite shooter, but his ability to knock down 3-pointers from the corner, and the mere threat he provides as a 7-footer away from the basket, helps space the floor and, at times, alters opposing lineups. He also alters shots at the rim, and what Maker lacks in strength and rebounding — his rebounding percentage is less than half of Andre Drummond’s — he makes up for with his frenetic energy, particularly at the defensive end.

Drafted 10th overall out of high school in 2016, Maker, who was born in South Sudan, raised as a refugee in Australia and prepped for the NBA in North America, barely saw the court the first half of his rookie season in Milwaukee. But then-coach Jason Kidd found a spark when he inserted Maker into the lineup later that winter, and when the playoffs rolled around, the rookie seemed to thrive.

Casey saw that firsthand in a first-round matchup that spring, as Maker played a key role in sixth-seeded Milwaukee jumping to a 2-1 series lead against Casey’s Toronto Raptors. His shot-blocking ability — denying All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry at the rim — helped turn the opener in the Bucks’ favor. Then in Game 3, his 11-point night, which included another 3-pointer to bury the Raptors early in the second half, effectively played Jonas Valanciunas out of Casey’s lineup.

“I got on our starting center in Toronto pretty hard,” Casey recalled Friday, “because he kept leaving him in the corner and Thon kept on dotting his eye.”

Maker forced Boston to make similar adjustments last spring, but only after sitting the first two games — both Milwaukee losses — in that first-round series. His breakout performance in Game 3 — 14 points (three 3-pointers), five rebounds and five blocked shots in 24 minutes — turned the tables. It also effectively knocked Greg Monroe out of the Celtics’ rotation, as Brad Stevens went to a small-ball lineup to match Maker and the Bucks. Maker’s net rating of plus-27.5 points per 100 possessions over a two-game span was a huge reason Milwaukee took the Celtics to a Game 7 last April.

The chances of that happening in this series are unlikely. Unfathomable, really, unless there’s a miraculous recovery by Griffin from that knee injury. Still, that underdog role the Pistons were busy touting Friday is one that suits Maker just fine.

“When you’re the underdog, you have nothing to lose,” he said, nodding. “And a lot to gain.”

Pistons vs. Bucks

Game 1: Pistons at Bucks, Sunday, 7 p.m. (FSD Plus, 97.1 FM)

Game 2: Pistons at Bucks, Wednesday, 8 p.m. (FSD, 950 AM)

Game 3: Bucks at Pistons, April 20, 8 p.m. (FSD, 97.1 FM)

Game 4: Bucks at Pistons, April 22, 8 p.m. (FSD, 950 AM)

*Game 5: Pistons at Bucks, April 24

*Game 6: Bucks at Pistons, April 26

*Game 7: Pistons at Bucks, April 28

* - if necessary

Twitter: @JohnNiyo