MILWAUKEE — It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment the Detroit Pistons‘ spirit broke, they took so many blows.
Dwane Casey’s pregame announcement that Blake Griffin‘s knee was “too sore” for him to play in Game 1 of the team’s first-round NBA playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks foreshadowed the debacle that was about to occur Sunday. It only got worse when Detroit took the court. Pistons forward Thon Maker — a fan favorite when he played for the Bucks — was booed every time he touched the ball. Milwaukee mounted a double-digit lead by the end of the first quarter. Just when it seemed things couldn’t get uglier, Andre Drummond was ejected.
“We picked it up as the game went on,” Pistons coach Casey said. “But it was too late.”
The Bucks went on to defeat the Pistons 121-86 behind 24 points and 17 rebounds from Giannis Antetokounmpo. All told, the Bucks had seven double-figure scorers — the most in a game in their past 20 seasons. Antetokounmpo had a double-double by halftime.
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer equated Milwaukee’s dominant performance to “built-up readiness” after four days without a game.
“I don’t know if they were ready for us,” Antetokounmpo said. “We just tried to focus on ourselves.”
Griffin — dressed in a maroon suit — sat with his hands folded in his lap, watching his team take a lashing on the court. The Pistons were able to snag the East’s final playoff seed in large part thanks to Griffin. He played in 75 games for Detroit this season — the most he has played since the 2013-14 season. In some of them, he appeared to be in a great deal of pain and hobbled up and down the court. Toward the end of the regular season, the miles caught up with the 30-year-old, and he sat out four of Detroit’s final seven games.
Even when Griffin did play against the Bucks during the regular season, Milwaukee swept Detroit in the teams’ four meetings. After Sunday’s game, Casey likened the Pistons without Griffin to the Bucks without Antetokounmpo or the 2016 Cavaliers without LeBron James.
“If it was my decision, I would’ve played,” Griffin said.
By halftime, the Bucks had built a 27-point lead. But Milwaukee’s largest lead came moments after Drummond was tossed.
Antetokounmpo had a jaw-dropping dunk from near the free throw line, but minutes later, Drummond made sure there wouldn’t be a repeat performance. With just more than four minutes left in the third quarter, Antetokounmpo was shoved by Drummond, causing him to fall hard. The foul didn’t seem malicious, but it clearly had the potential to be dangerous. After a quick review, the referees deemed the push worthy of a flagrant foul 2, which applies to contact that is deemed both unnecessary and excessive.
Griffin was subsequently issued a technical foul after a discussion of Drummond’s ejection seemed to get heated; the free throws that followed put Milwaukee up 97-54.
“I have to get an explanation for that,” Casey said of Griffin’s technical.
Drummond refused to answer any questions about the foul that earned him an ejection. In 26:16 before being ejected, Drummond was a minus-45. That’s the worst plus-minus in the past 20 postseasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Drummond was the third player ejected this postseason, joining Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant and LA Clippers guard Patrick Beverley, who were ejected after receiving a pair of double technicals for repeatedly jawing at each other Saturday.
Casey said he thought the foul should’ve been a flagrant 1 — which applies to unnecessary contact that isn’t deemed excessive — but said he understood that the officials were trying to control the game and set a tone. Budenholzer chalked the shove up to playoff chippiness. The foul was a topic of conversation in the Bucks’ locker room after the game, but Antetokounmpo said he didn’t fault Drummond.
Antetokounmpo didn’t play a second of the final quarter, and the Bucks won by 35 — the third-largest playoff victory in franchise history. When the game was all but over, fans flocked to the exits and walked out into the April snow, chanting “Bucks in four! Bucks in four!”