An impressive effort beget a disappointing conclusion for the Indiana Pacers, watching almost helplessly as their six game winning streak came to a close against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks. The Pacers led by 10 with 9:37 left in the fourth, but while Mike Budenholzer opted to go with his starters early in the fourth, Nate McMillan tried to milk as much time as possible resting his.
The decision proved costly when the Bucks took the lead on a 15-4 run before McMillan inserted his full starting lineup. By that point, it became an exercise of putting the genie back in the bottle, brief leads for the Pacers being responded by Antetokounmpo’s scoring, rebounding, and passing.
Antetokounmpo scored or assisted on 15 straight Milwaukee points late in the fourth while defensively the Bucks were able to frustrated the Pacers into 3-11 shooting in the final six minutes. To that point, Indiana had steadily controlled the second half, but the lack of a closer haunted them late and caught up to them in the closing minutes.
Indiana had flipped the script to get into the lead, erasing a 13-point first half deficit, taking the lead heading into the fourth behind a 32-21 third quarter performance. Both teams brought a lot of defensive energy early, but Antetokounmpo was the difference in the opening stretches. He made quite a bit out of nothing early, allowing the Bucks to jump to an early lead.
A steady dosage of fortunate bounces also favored Milwaukee in the first half and when that fortune shifted and Antetokounmpo began to play passively, Indiana eventually capitalized on back-to-back threes, pushing them into the lead that would eventually become double figures. Unfortunately, the Pacers had numerous opportunities to take control of the game earlier in the third than they did, but trailing 58-54, they stumbled to 1-7 shooting, ultimately shaving just a single point off that deficit in three and a half minutes.
Both teams had five double figure scorers, but it was Antetokounmpo’s 33 point, 19 rebound, 11 assist triple double that tipped the scales over the 20-point night from Bojan Bogdanovic. Bogdanovic did play well on a night the Pacers as a team shot just 41.6%, going 7-14, but was just 1-4 from deep, though it was his that helped push Indiana ahead by six in the third.
Darren Collison was the only starter to hit multiple threes as part of his 14 points, dishing all seven of his assists to Bogdanovic, Myles Turner, and Domantas Sabonis. Turner finished with 11, stumbling a bit with his shooting at just 4-13, but was again left out of the offense for the first half, getting just four attempts.
His struggles shooting weren’t unique, especially with Thaddeus Young missing a lot early as part of his 3-9 night. But he and Wesley Matthews each had tons of positives in terms of their energy, their steals late in the second and early in the third setting up Pacers buckets. Matthews was just 2-7 shooting, but hit the tie-breaking three in the third to help push them ahead.
The second unit was a big part of Milwaukee’s comeback in the fourth with both Eryan Ilyasova and George Hill causing Indiana issues in the second half. Sabonis did at least respond on the offensive end, leading the bench with 14 points. Tyreke Evans shot well from deep, scoring 10 points on three threes, but was an unfathomable, but somehow expected 0-5 at the rim.
For the second straight game, the Pacers were unable to fully capitalize on their strengths in scoring off of turnovers and in the fast break. They were outscored 23-10 on the latter, a bulk of the difference coming in the first quarter. They were also bullied inside, getting outscored 58-32 in the paint. Milwaukee never allowed Indiana to get comfortable inside, holding the Pacers to just 40% inside.
The loss gives Indiana their 20th of the year, dropping them to 38-20 on the year, putting them five and a half games behind Milwaukee and just a game up on both Boston and Philadelphia in third after they both won tonight. Indiana will have their hands full holding off one, if not both, to earn home court in the first round, a 24-game stretch run that will begin next Friday against the New Orleans Pelicans.
That game will be the next time the Pacers will be anywhere near a live action court, as they’ll be conspicuously absent from the upcoming All-Star Weekend despite entering the All-Star Break with the league’s sixth best record.