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Pistons Bucks Basketball

Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo dunks during the second half of the Bucks' 121-86 win over the Detroit Pistons in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series Sunday at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee. Antetokounmpo had 24 points, 17 rebounds and four assists in only 23 minutes in the first NBA playoff game at the new arena. 

MILWAUKEE — One can only imagine how thoroughly Giannis Antetokounmpo used to school Thon Maker in practice during the two and a half seasons they were teammates on the Milwaukee Bucks.

The 6-foot-11 Antetokounmpo was already a budding NBA star when the Bucks drafted the 7-1 Maker in 2016, hoping for all the world that he would develop into another Antetokounmpo. That never happened and the Bucks traded Maker to the Detroit Pistons in February.

Though the two remain great friends, Antetokounmpo, the favorite to win the NBA's most valuable player award this season, was back schooling Maker once again during the Bucks' 121-86 laugher over the Pistons in the opening game of their first-round playoff series Sunday night at Fiserv Forum.

The series matching the Bucks, the top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference, and eighth-seeded Pistons wasn't expected to be overly competitive, but things took an ominous turn for Detroit an hour or so before the game when coach Dwane Casey said power forward Blake Griffin, the team's leading scorer, wouldn't be able to play due to the knee soreness he's been battling for weeks.

Matched up against Maker while Griffin watched from the bench, Antetokounmpo got off to a flying start, pressing the issue at every turn and igniting a blistering pace as the Bucks raced to a 38-18 lead after one quarter. Poor Maker never had a chance, but given how focused and determined Antetokounmpo appeared to be at the start, things probably wouldn't have changed much even if Griffin, who is not a great defender, had played.

Indeed, it took a mere 12 minutes for everyone to see that Antetokounmpo is ready to attack the playoffs and so are the Bucks. Those two developments are definitely related.

"Giannis did a great job of starting us off right and being in an aggressive, attack mode," small forward Khris Middleton said. "Everybody else, we just made plays for him."

The Bucks had the NBA's best record at 60-22, they're well-rested after coach Mike Budenholzer took his foot off the gas during the final six regular-season games and they're starting to get healthy, with Nikola Mirotic making his return to the rotation Sunday. But they hit the playoffs at a full sprint Sunday and Antetokounmpo's 11-point, six-rebound performance in the first quarter was the catalyst.

"I think we did a great job just setting the tone, playing hard, playing together," Antetokounmpo said.

It was a tone the Bucks needed to set at the start of the playoffs. They never let up, either, leading by 43 points during the third quarter in what turned into a stellar team effort on both ends of the floor.

In the playoffs, however, teams only go as far as their superstar takes them. The aggressiveness Antetokounmpo showed at the start was a sign that he is prepared to assume the responsibility of putting the team on his back and carrying it to a long playoff run.

"It's what we've been seeing from Giannis all year," Budenholzer said. "I think he's prepared himself, he's ready. He expects a lot of himself and he delivers a lot of the time."

He delivered Sunday, totaling 24 points, 17 rebounds and four assists in only 23 minutes. It was a testament to Antetokounmpo's effect on the game that he was 1-for-5 from 3-point range and 5-for-12 from the free-throw line ... and still dominated the proceedings while he was in there.

Despite his aggressiveness at the start, Antetokounmpo wouldn't admit he is a man on a mission after the Bucks lost back-to-back first-round playoff series the last two seasons. Nor did he want to teach Maker, someone he calls his "little brother," still another lesson.

"Thon's a great player, a great defender," Antetokounmpo said. "I was just trying to make plays. I was able to get to the free throw line or get an easy layup or find my teammates. But I was just trying to be aggressive. At the start of the game, being aggressive. I knew if I was in that aggressive mode the whole game, good things were going to happen."

Good things did happen. The Bucks put seven players in double figures and limited the Pistons to 38% shooting. Antetokounmpo got Maker to commit two early fouls and the Pistons even resorted to putting center Andre Drummond on him for a brief stretch. Nothing much worked for the Pistons even though not a single Bucks starter played more than 25 minutes.

There was some concern that the Bucks, the NBA's most consistent team all season, might lose their momentum after they went 3-3 in their final six games, often playing short-handed while Budenholzer rested starters with an eye toward the playoffs. That concern was heightened Saturday on the first day of the playoffs when the road team won three of the four series openers, including both Eastern Conference games.

It was imperative that the Bucks make a statement Sunday by opening the playoffs with focus and intensity. With Antetokounmpo showing the way, that's exactly what they did.

"It's just how he plays," point guard Eric Bledsoe said. "I look forward to him every game to be aggressive like that since the start of the season. He definitely isn't stepping off the gas."

One gets the feeling he won't let the Bucks step off the gas, either.

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