Too much got away from the Indiana Pacers in tonight’s loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, highlighting their thin margin for error against elite teams especially while playing without Domantas Sabonis. Things weren’t always as bad as the 117-98 final indicated, but they didn’t do themselves any real favors with poor shooting throughout the night, which constantly allowed Milwaukee to seize momentum with a number of lengthy runs.
The Pacers fell behind by eight early, as they are wont to do, but quickly climbed back in the game, taking an 18-17 lead. The first of Milwaukee’s runs came immediately after, regaining the lead on an 8-2 run. After the Pacers again made it one-point game, Milwaukee extended it out to double figures on an 11-0 run.
Those sorts of runs were really all the Bucks needed to keep the game in their favor, even as the Pacers fought back through their defense late in the second quarter. Indiana trailed by four heading into the break, holding Milwaukee to just nine points in the final eight minutes. The Pacers fought back in the game while Giannis Antetokounmpo sat, but they did a good job limiting him when he did return, holding him scoreless in the final three minutes after allowing 11 points in the first six and a half.
Out of the break, Wesley Matthews scored five lightning quick points to give Indiana a 55-54 lead. The lead went back to Milwaukee immediately and was built upon quickly as the Bucks scored the next eight. The Pacers continued to limit Antetokounmpo, but they weren’t able to do the same for Khris Middleton tonight, who torched the Pacers in the third with 11 points of his own.
When that run was finished, the Pacers climbed back to within three, Bojan Bogdanovic drilling a three after Myles Turner came up with a big block on Antetokounmpo. Antetokounmpo drew a technical foul on the block, Bogdanovic missed the free throw, and suddenly, the tables were turned again. Milwaukee blasted through the Indiana defense, scoring 13 straight to make it a double figure game.
Indiana cut the 16-point deficit to 10 early in the fourth, but again surrendered a lengthy run, this time of 12-0 to put them down 22. The Pacers were down all night, but never played out of it, still able to kinda-sorta threaten Milwaukee by cutting the lead to 14 with four minutes left. The Bucks entered the game having lost their last two games on fourth quarter leads and the Pacers were unfortunately on the wrong end of a team refusing to make it three.
Antetokounmpo did what the best player in a game should do: take over in Winning Time. He scored Milwaukee’s next eight points, three of those on dunks, closing out the win on a backbreaking 8-2 run that dropped the Pacers in the loss column. Indiana was surely prepared for a 29-point outing from Antetokounmpo, but not surprisingly weren’t when it came to contributions elsewhere.
Three point shooting lifted Milwaukee early, they hit six of their first 10 and finished with 14 on the night. Middleton and Brook Lopez combined for 7-11, the latter being an occupational hazard, but the former being an outright sea change from his previous performances against the Pacers was simply too much for Indiana.
Middleton had been dreadful in the teams’ last two meetings, averaging just 12.5 points on 26.5% shooting. His ability to get settled early with three threes in the first quarter nearly covered that average alone, putting the Pacers in a lose-lose situation for whenever Antetokounmpo was needed to put a stamp on the win.
For the Pacers, they did keep pace early thanks to an excellent showing from Turner. Turner stepping back behind the three point arc after shaking Lopez on a screen for Darren Collison was a potent look for the Pacers all night, allowing Turner to lead the way with 22 points and 17 rebounds. Turner was 4-11 from beyond the arc, a chef’s kiss of an attempt number that unfortunately didn’t get paired with a higher level of makes thanks to some tough misses.
Tough misses did well defining the Pacers nearly all night, however. They shot just 38.9% from the floor despite having the looks necessary to limit Milwaukee’s runs, but the guard rotation dug themselves hole after hole on a woeful 8-31 shooting night. Part of that was by design as Milwaukee limited the Pacers to just 28 points in the paint, which pushed them out into the midrange on a night they were under 40% on over 20 attempts as well as a season high in three point attempts with 37, hitting 14.
Unfortunately, Milwaukee also hit 14, while also scoring 52 in the paint, allowing them to finish the night at 50%. Stopping Antetokounmpo at the rim is a lot to ask, but when guys like Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, and Tony Snell are slicing up the interior defense as well, the Pacers needed to have a huge standout advantage somewhere, and it quite simply didn’t exist tonight.
That lack of advantage included the second unit, which had to make a difference in this one with the starting unit not getting any reliable scoring beyond Turner. No one picked up that mantle on the bench, totaling just 30 for the night, led by Kyle O’Quinn with 11. It was one of those nights where the absence of Sabonis was most felt, as Milwaukee’s bench didn’t exactly torch the scoreboard themselves with 29 points, though they did have five threes among them vs. just three for Indiana.
The Pacers’ hold on the third seed again slips to just half of a game over the Philadelphia 76ers with this loss. That will be either a tie or a full game after tomorrow night when Philly travels to Houston before the Pacers square up against the Sixers on Sunday afternoon in the final of their four game season series. The winner of that game will be in third place, but will also hold the tiebreaker, making it one of the highest stakes games remaining on Indiana’s schedule.