The Milwaukee Bucks did exactly what they were supposed to do in the first round of the 2019 NBA playoffs. Facing a Detroit Pistons team that barely scraped into the postseason and whose best player, All-Star forward Blake Griffin, was severely hampered by a left knee injury, the Bucks conducted themselves as a 60-win juggernaut should, breezing through a sweep of a roundly overmatched opponent.
Milwaukee outscored Detroit by 23.5 points per 100 possessions in the four-game flaying, easily the top net rating of Round 1, despite no single member of the rotation averaging 30 minutes per game. The Bucks won every game by more than 15 points, rolling up a total point differential of plus-95, tied for the second-most-lopsided sweep in league playoff history. And after Detroit authored a strong start to Game 4 on Monday, leading midway through the third quarter thanks to yeoman’s work from Griffin and point guard Reggie Jackson, the Bucks absolutely slammed the door on the eighth-seeded Pistons by going scorched earth behind their (and possibly the league’s) most valuable player:
Giannis Antetokounmpo scored a career-playoff-high 41 points on 12-for-23 shooting on Monday to finish the job, adding nine rebounds, four blocks, three assists, and a steal for good measure. The last Bucks player to score 41 in a postseason game was Ray Allen, nearly 18 years ago. The last player from any team to score 40 or more in a playoff game in fewer than 32 minutes was nobody. Ever.
Presented with the opportunity to secure the first playoff series win of his career—and the Bucks’ first as a franchise since 2001, and their first sweep of a seven-game set since 1983—Antetokounmpo didn’t screw around. He utterly dominated a closeout game on the road, using his rare combination of relentlessness and physicality to bulldoze the Pistons, putting nearly every Detroit defender of consequence in foul trouble. (He shot 20 free throws in Game 4; Detroit, as a team, shot 12.) He showed why he was one of the most fearsome defenders in the league this season, stonewalling Andre Drummond at the rim and hauling back in transition to erase an Ish Smith layup with a soaring chase-down swat.
And, while the MVP votes have all long been cast, Giannis added an eye-popping highlight to his Heisman reel when he shrugged off full-body contact from Drummond in midair, double-clutched, and lofted in a Jordanesque finish that left even Pistons fans speechless:
Giannis has had that effect on a lot of people this season. Averaging 26.3 points, 12 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.5 blocks in just 28.3 minutes per game in Round 1 probably added a few more. But for Antetokounmpo to take the next step toward cementing himself as the sport’s most ascendant ass-kicker and emerging public face, he’ll need to prove his postseason bona fides against a higher class of competition. His first crack at it will come against the team that knocked him out of the playoffs last spring.
The Boston Celtics looked a little rickety at times in dispatching an Indiana Pacers team that just flat-out couldn’t score without the injured Victor Oladipo. But they took care of business all the same, winning four straight to advance to what promises to be a fascinating conference semifinals. For all the drama that overshadowed their largely disappointing regular season, the Celtics seem like an opponent capable of causing problems for Milwaukee.
While no individual defender has truly put the clamps on Giannis this season, Boston can at least throw multiple bodies at him, including defensive linchpin Al Horford, roadblock center Aron Baynes, hard-nosed Marcus Morris, and the extremely strong Semi Ojeleye, a little-used reserve who saw a ton of the matchup in last year’s series and fared really well. After locking up a Pistons team with little bankable shot creation, the Bucks will have to work harder defensively to corral a Celtics squad featuring half-court locksmith Kyrie Irving; Jayson Tatum, who took 75 percent of his shots against Indiana in the paint or beyond the arc and looked much more effective for it; and a seemingly resurgent Gordon Hayward, who poured in 20 points on nine shots to send Indiana home for the summer. And while Milwaukee’s defense has ranked among the league’s best all season despite conceding a ton of 3-point shots, thanks in part to a scheme that seeks to funnel looks to iffy shooters, the Bucks can be susceptible to teams replete with legitimate marksmen … like, say, the Celtics, who drilled 47 triples in four games on 39.8 percent shooting from distance as a team against Indiana, and whose lone win over the Bucks this season came in a game when they made a season-high 24 long balls.
The Celtics have the weapons to give the Bucks a much stiffer test than the Pistons could, and it will be up to Milwaukee to prove that its year-over-year improvements are enough to overcome the presence of a healthy Irving and Hayward. More than that, though, this series will be a referendum on Giannis. The biggest question on the Eastern side of the playoff bracket is whether he’s ready to be the most dominant player in a postseason series against other elite opponents. After a perfect tune-up against Detroit, this is the series that will begin to give us the answer. Stumble in the second round, and we might have to reevaluate who the conference’s best player really is. Vanquish Boston in impressive fashion, though, and we’ll be a massive Euro-step closer to the dawning of a new age.