‘Unique’ Bucks provide ultimate test for Pistons' defense

By Matt Schoch
The Detroit News
Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) is averaging career highs in points (27.7), rebounds (12.5) and assists (5.9) this season.

Auburn Hills — From their transformative superstar to their offensive transformation, the challenge of game-planning against the Milwaukee Bucks lives up to their top billing.

Starting Sunday, the Pistons will have at least four cracks at solving coach Mike Budenholzer’s team. But just like in the regular season, it’s possible that might not be enough.

With Giannis Antetokounmpo’s not-of-this-galaxy physical gifts to an offense that basically blueprints the ideals of the “modern NBA,” the Bucks cruised to an NBA-best 60 wins.

“They’re very unique,” Pistons guard Reggie Jackson said after practice Friday. “They’re playing this new realm of basketball where guys are launching threes, but they’re doing it smart-wise. They’re getting up good shots, but all the time they’re just trying to keep you honest so they can get to the basket.”

While coach Dwane Casey has talked all season about the Pistons implementing the modern shot spectrum, Budenholzer’s Bucks mastered it in his first year by focusing on volume 3-point shooting and shots near the basket.

According to NBA.com, the Bucks lead the league in scoring (118.1 points per game) and net rating, attempted the second-most 3-pointers in the league, and are third in points in the paint.

Bucks center Brook Lopez, one of the best free agent signings of the summer at $3.4 million for one year, has stepped out to the perimeter to open driving lanes and lure the opposing center away from the basket. Lopez has shot a career-high 6.3 3-pointers per game and is making them at 36.5 percent, a full percentage point above the league average.

“They’ve done a great job as an organization, as coaches, just putting in and implementing a system that allows them to get up and down, quick tempo, spread the court,” Jackson said. “They’ve gotten (Eric) Bledsoe to spread the court, almost eliminated Lopez’s post game altogether, but guys can’t take that for granted because when he gets down there, he’s still a load.”

Of course, all of this is made easier by Antetokounmpo, as the 6-foot-11 “Greek Freak” would make most any coach seem brilliant.

Antetokounmpo’s numbers have improved every season, but Budenholzer has him in line for his first MVP title in Year 6 with his 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game. His 57.8 field-goal percentage is by far a career high, and he’s also a top contender for the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award.

“He’s constantly attacking,” Jackson said. “I think with the years that he’s been there and been implemented, probably since (former coach) Jason Kidd was in there, everybody is starting to see his maturation.”

Antetokounmpo has made 583 field goals at the basket this season, the highest amount since the NBA started tracking the stat in 1996-97. Antetokounmpo’s total broke Shaquille O’Neal’s previous record of 571. According to ESPN, Antetokounmpo’s 116 uncontested dunks were the league’s most in 20 years.

Ironically, Pistons assistant coach Sean Sweeney has the Frankensteinian task of devising a defense to slow the monster he helped create. As an assistant with the Bucks for four seasons, Sweeney spent hours working out with Antetokounmpo at practice, before games, and even during the offseason in Greece.

While Antetokounmpo’s 3-point shooting efficiency was his worst in four seasons at 25.6 percent this year, the Bucks were 15th in the league at 35.3 percent, just below the league average.

Throughout the course of the series, Pistons center Andre Drummond said there’s a chance to wear down Milwaukee physically and make that long-range proficiency worse.

“My main goal is to get them tired,” Drummond said. “Once your legs are gone, the 3-point shot won’t be as efficient. But you also have to do a good job of getting up on 3-point shot when they shoot it.”

Casey called stopping the Bucks the most unique challenge for any defense in the league, with Khris Middleton making his first All-Star appearance and Bledsoe also playing at a high level.

“They have so many All-Stars and so many talented players that you don’t know where to start,” Casey said. “They’re very, very difficult to prepare for because they’re all so good and so talented.

“They’re just a great, great team.”

Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.

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