The Milwaukee Bucks won their first playoff series since 2001 when they completed a four-game sweep of the Detroit Pistons with a 127-104 victory in Monday's Game 4 at Little Caesars Arena.
The Eastern Conference's top seed had little trouble with the Pistons, winning the first three games by double digits and ensuring it didn't delay the inevitable Monday.
Giannis Antetokounmpo was unstoppable with 41 points, nine rebounds, four blocks and three assists, while Khris Middleton (18 points) and Eric Bledsoe (16 points and five assists) provided support. Reggie Jackson (26 points and seven assists) and Blake Griffin (22 points, six assists and five rebounds) did what they could for the Pistons but didn't have enough support to overcome Milwaukee's firepower.
Middleton, Bledsoe Will Determine Bucks' Fate Against Loaded Celtics
Antetokounmpo is going to get his numbers against any team in the league.
The potential league MVP is a singular force in prime position to take the torch from LeBron James as the face of the NBA for years to come. He flashed his array of talent throughout Monday's game, helping the Bucks overcome their slow start and a double-digit deficit by dunking over Thon Maker, double-pumping in the air before completing an and-1 finish on Andre Drummond and even guarding Griffin for stretches.
He initiated the offense as a ball-handler at times, stunned the crowd with chase-down blocks that saw him sky from well behind plays to swat shots out of bounds and frustrated the Pistons because they couldn't guard him without racking up fouls.
Griffin fouled out, Pistons head coach Dwane Casey picked up a technical foul and Detroit watched a halftime lead turn into a blowout loss.
A singular star is enough to beat an overmatched No. 8 seed, especially when that star is as talented as Antetokounmpo. However, Milwaukee has larger goals after it won 60 games during the regular season, and the Boston Celtics squad that knocked it out of last year's playoffs is waiting.
Only this time, that team is even more loaded. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward were both sidelined with injuries when Boston reached the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals.
While the Celtics dealt with inconsistency throughout the regular season, they appeared to find their stride during a first-round sweep of the Indiana Pacers. They should also be confident heading into the series against Milwaukee based on last year's result, as key pieces such as Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier and Al Horford are still there while Irving and Hayward enter the fray as reinforcements.
Bledsoe was underwhelming in last year's series, shooting 31.8 percent from deep and finishing with just 3.7 assists to 2.1 turnovers per game. His struggles in Game 1's overtime loss (fouled out with five turnovers) were a primary reason the Bucks missed an opportunity to seize home-court advantage, and his failure to outplay Rozier became a central storyline.
Rozier even wore a Drew Bledsoe jersey to one of the games so he would have Bledsoe's name emblazoned on the back of his shirt.
Milwaukee needs a better showing from its point guard, especially since Malcolm Brogdon hasn't played since March 15 with an injury and is a major question mark at best. Bledsoe won't only be tasked with guarding Rozier either, as Irving is back, healthy and still one of the best point guards in the league.
Middleton will also be critical to ensuring the series with the Celtics doesn't devolve into Antetokounmpo on one end against seven or eight contributors on the other.
The All-Star forward is Milwaukee's answer to Tatum, Brown and Hayward—wing players who can take over for stretches and capitalize on openings created when the primary playmakers attract additional defensive attention.
Don't let the No. 4 seed next to Boston's name fool you. This team has been in an NBA-Finals-or-bust position since it reached Game 7 of last year's Eastern Conference Finals without its best player. It also has incredible depth and the confidence that stems from knowing it beat the Bucks just last postseason.
Antetokounmpo will dominate because that's what he does, but the only way the top seed will advance is if the Middleton-Bledsoe combination provides consistent support and answers for Boston's litany of secondary options.
Despite All-Star Season From Blake Griffin, Pistons' Future Is Bleak
Playoff struggles have become synonymous with the Pistons ever since they were consistent title contenders in the mid-2000s with an NBA-record 14 straight losses.
Not much suggests that will change in the near future, and it's no fault of the star player.
Griffin missed the first two games of this series with a knee injury and was in clear pain at times in Monday's contest. It is a credit to him he played with a significantly taped knee and managed to dunk over defenders, extend his game to the three-point line, get out in transition and even handle the ball at the top of the key.
It was a gutsy performance when it would have been easy to back down against overwhelming odds, and he received a deserved standing ovation from the crowd as he exited after his sixth foul.
Unfortunately for Griffin and those fans, early playoff exits are the ceiling for this team while the 30-year-old plays out the string until his player option for the 2021-22 campaign.
Secondary option Jackson is 29 years old and under contract for one more season. He has also been far too inconsistent throughout his career to count on performances like Monday's, and the team's other supposed star, Andre Drummond, is difficult to keep on the floor in crunch time because his weaknesses—free-throw shooting and guarding matchup problems on the outside—are so often exposed in the perimeter-oriented version of the NBA.
While the team has some young pieces in Bruce Brown and Luke Kennard who figure to be solid, they also don't stand out as potential stars in a league so dependent on having more than one go-to option.
Duncan Smith of Forbes broke down the precarious position the team is in after Stan Van Gundy's lackluster tenure as president of basketball operations and head coach. That timeline included overpaying for pieces who either aren't there anymore (Boban Marjanovic) or are afterthoughts (Jon Leuer), as well as giving up on Spencer Dinwiddie far too early.
The Pistons also have little flexibility entering the 2019 summer outside of the mid-level exception, the bi-annual exception and "all the veteran minimum exceptions their hearts can handle." Even their own first-round pick, which falls at No. 15 overall, won't be too helpful because the 2019 draft is considered quite top-heavy.
Detroit hasn't won a playoff game, much less a series, since 2008 and will be stuck with mediocrity for years to come.
Trading for a talent like Griffin is usually a move that puts a talented team over the top as a contender. For the Pistons, it was the one that shifted them from a lottery team to first-round fodder.
The Bucks now shift their attention to the second round and a showdown with Irving and the Celtics, while the Pistons will look to add more pieces during the offseason.