If you missed the first installments of our Playoff Preview, look no further!
Detroit Pistons (41-41) at Milwaukee Bucks (60-22)
Game 1 implied score: 103.5, Bucks 116
Season series: 4-0, Bucks
Team net ratings: Pistons -0.4 (17th), Bucks +8.6 (1st)
Pistons injuries: Blake Griffin (sore left knee, questionable for Game 1)
The unavoidable conclusion is that this series will be lopsided in the Bucks' favor. They won the season series 4-0 and a postseason sweep is very possible, especially if Blake Griffin's left knee forces him to miss games. Milwaukee had the best net rating in the league by a wide margin this season (+8.6 per 100 possessions), while Detroit had the lowest of any playoff team (-0.4). Griffin's knee injury is the biggest story for the Pistons in this series, so let's begin there.
We first heard about Blake's knee bothering him in March. It quickly progressed to the point that he was hobbled on the court, even pulling himself from Detroit's penultimate game because he was hurting his team. He then sat out the season finale, even though Detroit needed a win (or Hornets loss) to clinch the final playoff spot. This has all the signs of a long-term ailment that won't magically heal with a few days' rest, and we can't avoid Blake's lengthy history of knee injuries. Here's a snapshot of his left knee alone:
+ Stress fracture in left kneecap required season-ending surgery when he was a rookie in Jan. 2010
+ Sprained left knee in 2012 playoffs, then tore his left meniscus during a Team USA scrimmage that summer
+ Sprained left MCL in Nov. 2017 and missed one month
+ Began dealing with "left knee soreness" in late March this year, with coach Dwane Casey saying in April, "It’s not structural; it’s what he can tolerate."
If there's a silver lining, it's that the Sunday start for this series has allowed Blake a full four days to rest his knee. There are also two games off between each of the first three games. Maybe that will give Blake enough recovery time, but as I suggested earlier...I doubt it. Even if he does play in Game 1, there's no guarantee he'll be his explosive self. With a game predicated on powerful but quick post moves, and an improved jumper to keep defenses honest this year, any loss of lift could be ruinous.
Even if we assume Blake returns and plays well, Detroit will need huge contributions from the supporting cast. Bruce Brown is a full-time starter but he's the definition of a defensive specialist -- in 56 starts he's averaged 4.2 points on 38.5% shooting, including 25.4% from deep. Wayne Ellington is a 3-point specialist whose strengths could be negated by Blake's injury. First, he'll get far fewer open looks because many are created off passes from Blake directly, or secondary passes after defenses collapse toward Blake. Second, Ellington's ability to spread the court won't matter if the Pistons' only reliable penetrator is Reggie Jackson.
Pistons coach Dwane Casey pointed to the difficulty of initiating offense without Blake, because it leaves Jackson with an uncomfortable degree of responsibility. He can run pick-and-rolls with Andre Drummond but the Bucks defense (again, the best in the league in Defensive Rating) will snuff those out more often than not. And when he's forced to create his own jump shots, R-Jax is at his worst. He's 41.3% on jumpers this season and 84.8% of his makes were assisted -- a mere 15.2% of his successful jump shots were unassisted. You can't just hand him the ball and expect him to generate points against an elite defense.
Detroit's bench is solid but can barely be expected to hold leads, let alone erase deficits handed to them by the starting five. Ish Smith is a more than capable backup PG, who had some heroic moments late in the season to keep Detroit playoff-bound, but he's not a difference-maker in this matchup. Luke Kennard's sore right foot appears to have fully healed, and he was terrific in the season finale with 27 points (one shy of his career high) in limited minutes. His scoring jolt will be welcome, if not essential, but once again he can't be expected to turn the tide. In four regular-season matchups he had a net rating of -15.6 and a True Shooting of 41.5%, which is abysmal.
There's one more potential lifeline the Pistons can look to for a glimmer of hope in this series -- Andre Drummond. But even his presence isn't all too comforting. In four games vs. the Bucks' top-rated defense this season, Drummond averaged 13.8 points, 10.5 boards, 1.8 assists, 1.5 steals and 0.3 blocks. He shot 44.9% from the field and those numbers are way off his typical production. The points are the third-fewest he averaged vs. any team this season, the rebounds were second-fewest, and the FG% was fifth-lowest. He'll likely get more counting stats if Blake is out, since Detroit will look to him constantly by default, but I'm still not eager to roll the dice in DFS -- he costs $10k+ in most leagues and doesn't have the upside in this matchup.
On the other end of the court, Brook Lopez is a terrible matchup for Drummond. The Pistons are not a fearsome defensive team and Drummond is their only rim-protector, so pulling him to the 3-point line opens a freeway to the basket. Milwaukee can therefore put Drummond and the Pistons in a 'pick your poison' conundrum -- allow Drummond to hover outside the paint to forestall catch-and-shoot opportunities for Lopez or keep him home and risk getting burned with 3-pointers. The game plan is no secret and Lopez made 3.0 triples on 46.2% from deep vs. the Pistons this year. More than 80% of his shot attempts were from downtown. Of course, knowing what the Bucks will do with Lopez doesn't mean Detroit can stop it.
Giannis Antetokounmpo gets plenty of ink as an MVP candidate on a potential championship team, coached by the recently crowned Coach of the Year in Mike Budenholzer. It's all warranted. Giannis has been otherworldly this season with 27.7 points on 57.8% shooting, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, all of which are personal bests. He had plenty of success in four games vs. Detroit, too, averaging 20.8 points, 8.8 boards, 7.0 dimes, 2.0 blocks and 1.3 steals. Those numbers came in a mere 29.7 minutes, partly because of foul trouble (4.8 fouls per game) -- yet another area in which Blake's knee injury (and reduced ability to draw fouls) hurts Detroit.
Giannis' impact on both ends of the court can't be overstated, but it's the supporting cast that makes Milwaukee a true danger in the postseason. If teams load up against Giannis and try to make him a jump shooter, the Bucks' "other guys" will make you pay. Lopez has already been mentioned, but Giannis tends to overshadow the fantastic seasons of Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe, both of whom averaged around 20 points per game in the season series vs. Detroit. Sterling Brown brings manic defensive energy and even more fastbreak potential to the starting lineup, and the bench is loaded with options like Pat Connaughton, Ersan Ilyasova, George Hill and D.J. Wilson. We may not see Wilson in this series, but that's only because they're likely getting back yet another 3-point gunner in Nikola Mirotic (thumb) for Game 1. Bombs away.
Prediction: Bucks in four
Indiana Pacers (48-34) at Boston Celtics (49-33)
Game 1 implied scores: Pacers 101.5, Celtics 108.5
Season series: 3-1 Celtics
Team net ratings: Pacers +3.4 (10th), Celtics +4.2 (6th)
Pacers injuries: Victor Oladipo (ruptured quad, out for playoffs), Indiana rested Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis, Wesley Matthews, Bojan Bogdanovic and Thaddeus Young but they'll all be fine for Game 1
Celtics injuries: Marcus Smart (oblique tear, out for series)
Boston's ability to claim homecourt advantage could be decisive in this series. The Celtics were barely above .500 on the road this season, but they went an impressive 28-13 at TD Garden. The Pacers had a startlingly similar pattern of success, and their 19-22 road record doesn't bode well as they open this series with games in Boston on Sunday and Wednesday. Let's first look at how Indiana projects in the matchup.
The Pacers have had time to adapt to the absence of Victor Oladipo, who went down on Jan. 23 with a ruptured quad. Here are splits for key Pacers with and without Oladipo:
Wesley Matthews' addition has also helped patch over Oladipo's absence, of course, and he's still a solid defender who will keep defenses honest from the 3-point arc (10.9 points, 2.1 triples on 36.9% from deep with Indy). Among guys already on the roster when Oladipo went down, Darren Collison and Bojan Bogdanovic have done the most to fill the void. Bogdanovic in particular has taken a leap forward, finishing top-50 for points per game thanks to his late surge. He has impressive quickness for his size at 6'8", and the ability to attack closeouts has added an impressive dimension to his game.
Unfortunately for Bogdanovic, the Celtics have numerous defenders who seem to match up well. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and even Marcus Morris can all be plausibly expected to make life difficult for Bojan. The numbers support the theory, since in four games this season, he averaged just 13.5 points on 43.9% shooting vs. the Celtics, with 2.5 rebounds and 2.0 assists. Those aren't encouraging splits for Indiana's leading scorer since Oladipo went down.
The Pacers' frontcourt is one strength they'll need to exploit. They boast nice size with Myles Turner, Thaddeus Young and Bogdanovic in the starting lineup, backed up by Domantas Sabonis (and if necessary, T.J. Leaf and Kyle O'Quinn). The Celtics ranked 23rd in rebound rate this regular season, the second-worst among playoff teams ahead of only Houston. The bad news for Indiana is that they themselves have the third-worst rate for playoff teams -- if either team can carve out a decisive edge on the glass, it could tip the balance of the series.
As implied by their 3-1 lead in the season series, the Celtics have had plenty of success vs. the Pacers this season. They shot 50.8% from the field and 40.2% from deep in those four games, averaging 13.3 triples per game en route to 116.8 points. They also averaged 46.3 rebounds and 27.3 assists, all positive numbers which are higher than their season averages vs. the league as a whole.
Kyrie Irving will be making his postseason debut for the Celtics, having missed the entire 2017-18 postseason after knee surgery. His performance, good or bad, will be dissected endlessly for reasons both practical and speculative -- Boston wants him to sign a long-term deal this summer, but Kyrie hasn't firmly committed (at least, not without backtracking). Myles Turner emerged as an elite rim protector this season, leading the NBA in blocks, so Kyrie is unlikely to get many easy layups to pad his scoring. He did average 19.3 points vs. Indy this season, though, with an effective FG% of 55.7%. That's a very strong mark that was only eclipsed by Al Horford (58.6%) and Daniel Theis (59.8%).
Speaking of those big men, coach Brad Stevens suggested he'll play Horford and Theis together at times in this series. Aron Baynes is physical enough to bang with Sabonis off the bench, too, which reiterates the 'stalemate' factor that emerges when you look at these teams from a statistical and matchup-based point of view. The X-factors for Boston, as usual, are likely to be guys like Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier. The Celtics are in the unfortunate position of learning to play without Marcus Smart (torn oblique), and it seems likely that Brown will get the nod as a starter. Hayward has fared well alongside Rozier in a reserve role, providing a burst of scoring and playmaking when Kyrie, Tatum and/or Horford are out, so they may be loath to mess with his role. Brown's ability to play off-ball effectively makes him a logical fit in the starting lineup, and I'm looking to him for DFS value even more than Rozier. To inject my opinion, the sheer depth on display in Boston (and Stevens' savvy rotations) are likely to give them the edge.
These teams aren't just similar in win/loss records and rebound rates. They're nearly identical in points allowed off turnovers (14.8 for Boston, 14.9 for Indiana), as well as second-chance points allowed (13.5 for Boston, 13.3 for Indiana). Oh, they also ranked 4th and 5th in the league for points allowed in the paint (44.8 and 45.9, respectively). Can Al Horford get the better of Myles Turner? Will Kyrie Irving find another gear and torch the league's third-best defense? Can the Pacers generate enough balanced scoring to win despite the absence of their injured star? We'll find out within a few weeks.
Prediction: Celtics in 6