Central Notes: Pacers, Lillard, Middleton, Bulls, Pistons

With All-NBA Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo on the shelf for tonight’s Game 1 matchup against the Pacers, the team’s second- and third-most important offensive contributors, Damian Lillard and Khris Middleton, are being expected to step up.

As Eric Nehm of The Athletic writes, Milwaukee will count on Lillard and Middleton to keep the team cooking with their distribution, not just their own shooting. Both are excellent when it comes to scoring in isolation, but the team as a collective will need to be strong, too.

“It’s the best team I’ve been on,” Lillard said. “So we’re capable. We can win games. And when we get (Antetokounmpo) back, we’ll be even better. So I think that’s that’s how I’m looking at it. I’m not looking at it like ‘Aw man. We can’t…’ We’ve shown it and I’ve been there before.”

Nehm notes that the team can go through major scoring droughts without Antetokounmpo operating as the fulcrum of the Bucks’ attack.

“We just can’t get stuck,” head coach Doc Rivers said. “When we get stuck, we have proven over years that we’re not great offensively. But when that ball is now there and we move it there and we get to the second side — or get to the second action, may be even a better way of saying that — we’ve proven that we’re really good. So we have to do that.”

There’s more out of the Central Division:

  • For as long as Antetokounmpo is out in this series for the Bucks, the Pacers’ focal point on defense now becomes the team’s only other All-Star, Lillard. As Kelly Iko of The Athletic details, Indiana has already enjoyed some success in slowing him down during the regular season. In games played against the Pacers this season, Lillard’s field goal shooting declined to 32% from the floor and 26.5% from long range. “I’m not going to give away too many secrets,” guard Aaron Nesmith said of how the team defends Lillard. “They’re a very different team when we played them earlier in the year — different coaching staff, different roster a bit. There are things we’re going to do differently, but we’re excited — it’ll be fun.”
  • After missing the playoffs for a second straight season despite fielding a veteran-heavy team, Bulls team vice president Arturas Karnisovas conceded that personnel changes could be in order this summer. Darnell Mayberry of The Athletic breaks down how he thinks Chicago can begin to construct a winning team culture.
  • After a 14-68 run in 2023/24, the Pistons face a lot of questions regarding their roster this summer. Omari Sankofa II of The Detroit Free Press (subscriber link) lists which players he deems most — and least — likely to return in 2024/25. Perhaps most surprisingly, he thinks 2022 lottery picks Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren could serve as intriguing trade chips for Detroit this summer. The Pistons are still looking to add a new lead executive in their front office, which obviously could dictate how the team moves forward in terms of its personnel.
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