Eastern Conference First Round – Game 1
No. 8 Detroit at No. 1 Milwaukee (TNT, 7:00 p.m. ET)
2018-19 Regular Season (Bucks 4-0, Under 2-1-1)
Dec. 5 – Bucks (-7.5) 115 vs. Pistons 92 (Under 225.5)
Dec. 17 – Bucks (-3) 107 at Pistons 104 (Under 225.5)
Jan. 1 – Bucks (-10) 121 at Pistons 98 (Push 219)
Jan. 29 – Bucks (-7) 115 at Pistons 105 (Over 216)
It’s hard to beat a team eight times without them getting on the board, especially when they’re well-coached. Dwane Casey surely has some ideas on how to try to give his team a fighting chance in this Eastern Conference 1-8. The Pistons are the last No. 8 seed to be swept in the East, falling against the LeBron James-led Cavs in ’16. They were swept in their previous postseason trip back in ’09 by LeBron’s Cavs too, so the last team in franchise history to win a playoff game is probably the one you remember best. Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton were among the league’s top guard combos. Tayshaun Prince, Antonio McDyess and Rasheed Wallace held down the frontcourt with Ben Wallace gone a couple of years by then.
That was 11 years ago.
Any chance to end that drought hinges on whether Blake Griffin can participate and be his normal self. Going into Game 1, that remains in doubt.
Knee soreness sidelined Griffin down the stretch throughout the final two weeks of the regular season, which forced Detroit to reach the postseason on the strength of center Andre Drummond and point guards Reggie Jackson and Ish Smith. They locked up the No. 8 seed and secured a .500 record by sweeping a back-to-back against the depleted Grizzlies and Knicks. Both the Heat and Hornets would’ve been better candidates to play spoiler here if Griffin isn’t available.
If he is, this series at least has a chance to be compelling.
Griffin averaged 24.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 7.0 assists in the four losses against Milwaukee, but also committed seven turnovers per contest, making him rather inefficient to play through. Despite that, he’s certainly the best option to try and successfully score against a Bucks team that led the NBA in defensive rating (104.9). Thon Maker, Zaza Pachulia, Jon Leuer and Glenn Robinson, Jr. would be Casey’s options to pair with Drummond up front, though he can also go small and play four guards alongside the league’s top rebounder. Jackson and Smith run the point, while shooters Wayne Ellington, Luke Kennard, Langston Galloway and slasher Bruce Brown will man the wing.
Even with Malcolm Brogdon expected to miss at least this first round as he recovers from a torn plantar fascia and Tony Snell sidelined with an ankle injury, the top-seeded Bucks have more than enough ammunition to squash a Griffin-less Pistons team. Giannis Antetokounmpo had his own issues with a sore knee throughout the regular-season’s final month and missed two of the last three contests, but he’s good to go here. Milwaukee has won nine of the last 10 games he’s played in, including each of the last seven. The “Greek Freak” has averaged 31.8 points, 11.6 rebounds and 5.5 assists over his last 10. He shot 58 percent over the four conquests of Detroit, averaging 20.8 points, 8.8 boards and 7.0 assists despite shooting just 10 percent from 3-point range.
Point guard Eric Bledsoe averaged 20.5 points in the four games against the Pistons, while wing Khris Middleton averaged 19.7 points over the course of three wins against the team that originally drafted him, missing one due to injury. Drummond averaged just 13.8 points and 10.5 rebounds per game against the Bucks, well below his season averages. He shot just 44.9 percent from the field, his fifth-lowest clip among the 30 teams he faced this season.
Only the Clippers (+10000) are a bigger underdog entering this first round than the Pistons (+2000) are against the Bucks, who were a 5-to-4 (+125) choice to win the East at the Westgate SuperBook even before the Raptors and 76ers blew their first-round Game 1s. Milwaukee is +600 to win the NBA title behind favored Golden State (-200) and led the NBA in wins and margin of victory all season while ranking in the top-five in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
The Bucks were the East’s top home team, winning 33 of 41 at the brand new downtown Fiserv Forum, which will host its first playoff game. The Pistons had the worst road record of any of the 16 teams that reached the playoffs, finishing 15-26. Their season-ending win in New York snapped a five-game road losing streak.
Milwaukee has seen the ‘over’ go 6-1 in its last seven contests. The ‘under’ has prevailed in four of the last five games involving Detroit.
Western Conference First Round – Game 1
No. 5 Utah at No. 4 Houston (TNT, 9:30 p.m. ET)
2018-19 Regular Season (Split 2-2, Under 3-1)
Oct. 24 – Jazz (+1) 100 at Rockets 89 (Under 217)
Dec. 6 – Jazz (-1.5) 118 vs. Rockets 91 (Under 215.5)
Dec. 17 – Rockets (-5) 102 vs. Jazz 97 (Under 212)
Feb. 2 – Rockets (+7) 125 at Jazz 98 (Over 222)
Considering how fun and competitive Saturday’s action was, the NBA looks like it has saved its best first-round offering for last. Of the eight series, only OKC-Portland and Denver-San Antonio are seen as more of a toss-up than this matchup featuring the Rockets and Jazz, the only pairing featuring two 50-win teams. It’s a battle of the two teams with best point differential since the All-Star break, though in Utah’s case, a favorable schedule contributed to some of its dominance. Houston has the league’s second-most efficient offense. Utah has the second-ranked defense. Game on.
The regular-season meetings couldn’t have been weirder. Each team won on the other’s home court once and got blown out there as well. Rudy Gobert got ejected over a beef with the refs in the second meeting, a 27-point Jazz win, but he struggled with foul trouble in one of the games and finished with just 10 points in the 27-point loss in the most recent encounter back in February. Neither Chris Paul nor Clint Capela participated in that rout, and both have actually struggled in the games they have played in against the Jazz.
Capela is shooting just 38.7 percent from the field and 33 percent from the free-throw line in his three outings vs. Utah, averaging only 9.0 points against its length. Paul has only suited up into of the four matchups, shooting 38 percent from the field and 16.7 percent from 3-point range in averaging just 11.5 points and 7.0 assists.
James Harden wasn’t slowed down. Although the 33.5 points he averaged against the Jazz is a lower figure than the 36.1 he managed to lead with the NBA this season, he shot 46 percent from the field and 36 percent from 3-point range and wasn’t shut down in any way by one of the league’s top defensive teams, so the Rockets are confident he’ll be able to get himself and teammates off at home to secure a good start to this complicated series. Houston went 31-10 at the Toyota Center, which was tied with Philadelphia for the league’s sixth-best home mark. The Jazz went 21-20 outside Salt Lake City, making them one of nine teams that finished above .500 on the road.
Donovan Mitchell helped land Utah in the No. 5 seed with a 118-108 win over Denver in which he tied a career-high with 46 points on Tuesday before sitting out the regular-season finale. Considering his streaky perimeter range and uncanny ability to use his body to get to the line, comparisons to Harden and the now retired Dwyane Wade have been made in regards to the second-year Jazz star, who already has one series victory under his belt after leading his team to a series upset of Oklahoma City as a rookie.
Mitchell has scored 30 or more in 17 games this season, which is obviously nowhere near Harden territory but certainly eye-catching. After struggling from the perimeter early in the season, he’s shot 45 percent from 3-point range since the All-Star break and can therefore get wherever he wants with defenders no longer being able to simply sag on him.
Ricky Rubio has been dealing with a quad contusion but he and backup point guard Raul Neto (ankle) practiced on Saturday and should be fine to play without limitations. The lone injury concern for either team involves Jazz shooter Kyle Korver, who is dealing with a knee injury.
Both teams have averaged 119.4 points over their last 10 games, each winning eight times. The Rockets are 25-2 when they win the rebounding battle, but that’s because they often struggle so much to close out possessions. The Jazz are one of the top teams on the boards and can therefore really do damage by convincingly winning on the glass.
The expectation here is that this will be a long series. The Rockets run more isolations than anyone, while the Jazz run the fewest. There will be games that should swing on whether officials swallow their whistle when Harden and Mitchell go trolling for contact in the paint, so this matchup is really one to break out the magnifying glass on. This first chapter may include feeling one another out, but could also swing on who shoots the 3-ball more accurately or who draws the most fouls. Harden shot 12 free throws in the Rockets’ losses and got to the stripe 31 times in their wins.
Utah will use Rubio and Royce O’Neale on Harden when it can dictate the defensive matchup here, while Eric Gordon will be tasked with dealing with Mitchell so the “Beard” doesn’t have to. It’s unlikely either team speeds the other up, so the total is back to 214, the neighborhood where it was for the first three meetings between the teams.
The ‘over’ has prevailed in three straight Jazz games, but the late-season atmosphere might have had something to do with that. The ‘under’ had gone 14-6 from Feb. 27-April 5. The low-side in 14-5-1 over the Rockets’ last 20 contests since the beginning of March.