MILWAUKEE — Tough lessons go down a little easier when the other guy is paying the tuition. The Milwaukee Bucks have been auditing a class in playoff do’s and don’ts for a few days now, learning things that other students haven’t exactly heeded.
Protect home court? Oops. Home teams have lost once already in four of the NBA’s eight playoff series, giving back that advantage that so drove them through the long regular season.
Never assume any lead is safe? Sheesh, that’s exactly what the Golden State Warriors appeared to do in coughing up a 31-point margin over the LA Clippers Monday to let control of that Western Conference first-round series slip through their fingers.
The Bucks took to heart the home-court reminder when they dominated the Detroit Pistons, their first-round foes, from start to finish Sunday night at Fiserv Forum. Now they’ll have fresh in their minds the Warriors’ serious misstep when they face the Pistons again Wednesday, eager to build in Game 2 something approaching their 43-point lead in the opener and, if so, pledged to protect it.
“It’s defintely a reference,” reserve guard Pat Connaughton told reporters Tuesday at the team’s practice facility. “There are times coaches will make a joke — ‘I’m beating a dead horse.’ But when you see it actually happen, it resonates even more with the players and with the coaches. To see something like that happen and to understand we’re in the same position, as far as seeding goes, how can we make sure we avoid it?”
The Clippers have spent most of the season’s second half overachieving, winning games beyond the talent their roster seems to have on paper. Detroit needed to qualify as the East’s last seed on the regular season’s final night. The Pistons are a .500 team now hobbled by the absence of All-Star forward Blake Griffin, who missed the opener with chronic left knee soreness.
Should Detroit’s limitations on both ends make the Bucks feel more secure or less secure as they seek to go up 2-0 before the series shifts to Little Caesars Arena this weekend?
Acutely aware and extremely vigilant sounds more like it.
“The Golden State game, they had it quote-unquote ‘in the bag,’” Connaughton said. “And the Clippers kept fighting. We want to make sure we’re on the side that never stops fighting.”
Like a number of NBA stars, the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo doesn’t watch a lot of games in which he doesn’t play. But there was no avoiding what befell the defending champs of Golden State, the biggest comeback in league playoff history.
“You’ve got to stay focused. You’ve got to still play the right way. You cannot be sloppy,” Antetokounmpo said. “Not to comment as much on what the Warriors did, but they were sloppy offensively, they weren’t getting back defensively. I think they were just being a little bit lazy. When you’re being lazy, the basketball gods watch the game and you’re going to pay for it.”
There is a price to be paid every which way for any team skilled and fortunate enough to bloat its lead to 20 points, 30 points or beyond. Frustration that can set in for an opponent, whether surrendering or not, can lead to the sort of flagrant foul Detroit’s Andre Drummond committed on Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee’s most treasured asset.
The Pistons center, who had gotten thrown into coach Dwane Casey’s on-the-fly adjustments of guarding the versatile and vexing Bucks star. With four minutes left in the third quarter, Drummond looked out of answers when he shoved Antetokounmpo to the floor.
There’s also the risk of taking one’s foot off the gas, losing momentum in that night’s game by trying to limit wear and tear for the next one. Only wing Sterling Brown, of Milwaukee’s starters, saw action in the fourth quarter as coach Mike Budenholzer subbed out his main guys.
The Bucks led 97-61 when that period began, but Detroit got a little spark, making 50 percent of its shots on a night it otherwise shot 35 percent and outscoring Milwaukee 25-24. Allowing a beaten opponent to get even a glimmer of a sliver of a spark can be dangerous in a best-of-seven series that — days off not withstanding — can slip away quickly.
The Bucks feel they’re imbued with the right amount of humility, even against an over-matched Detroit squad. They lost nine times this season against teams that didn’t make the playoffs, including New York, Cleveland, Atlanta and Phoenix twice.
“Games that we lost that we felt we didn’t play our brand of basketball,” Connaughton said. “We fell into the lull of contentment.”
They weren’t shy, either, about keeping their feet on other opponents’ throats, winning 45 times by 10 points or more.
And the Bucks have reserves to tap, confident that they can clean up in a few areas (15-of-43 from the arc in Game 1 and 19 points allowed off turnovers) while pressing harder on the Pistons. Whatever Casey tried defensively — Drummond switched onto Antetokounmpo, Thon Maker’s foul-plagued minutes, a little-used zone — Milwaukee appeared capable of inflicting more damage than it did. Antetokounmpo, after all, sat (24:32) more than he played (23:28) and still had 24 points, 17 rebounds and 12 free-throw attempts.
Of course, the minute the Bucks start counting on that stuff, humility flies out the window and vulnerability creeps in.
“Don’t let up, man,” Brown said, of the overarching lesson. “Stay aggressive at both ends. Stick to the game plan. Keep the pressure on.
“The message throughout the team is just to stay poised and focused on us. Don’t let nothing outside try to get in and stop what we’ve got going. No type of distraction can get to us right now.”