With seven players on the injury report for tonight’s game (now including Caris LeVert) and two more injuries during the game, a spirited nine-point loss is about the best case scenario for the Indiana Pacers against a fully staffed Milwaukee Bucks team. The Pacers had opportunities in this one, but an inability to get stops kept them in the rearview in the second half.
The Pacers came out with a purpose tonight, going up 21-12 just before the halfway mark of the first. They were fueled by a lights out shooting exhibition by Justin Holiday, who poured in 18 points on 6-7 shooting. Though Milwaukee quickly climbed back into it and took the lead, Indiana didn’t stay behind for long, leading by four as late as the 2:27 mark of the second quarter.
Indiana got there by shooting around 60% from three point range in the first half even as the Bucks scored with ease on their end of the floor. At halftime, Milwaukee held a 69-66 lead, closing the quarter on a 10-3 run as the Pacers found themselves scrambling after T.J. McConnell left the game with a sprained left thumb.
Though he was questionable to return, McConnell got bandaged up and returned to the game. Unfortunately, this didn’t pay immediate dividends, as a rare cold shooting spell kept Indiana from keeping pace with a 10-0 run to open the half by the Bucks, giving them their first double figure lead of the game.
After falling behind by 13, the Pacers did manage to keep the game in that range for much of the quarter until Domantas Sabonis came up sore on his left knee. As he attempted to play through it, he and Brook Lopez went down hard together, forcing the front office to make the call to pull him for the rest of the game despite his insistence to continue, leaving him despondent on the bench.
On the floor, the Pacers again were forced to adjust with mounting injuries as the Bucks edged their lead up to 19 points late in the third. Goga Bitadze had a response, working himself to the line twice and hitting a three to help cut the lead to 11 while Giannis Antetokounmpo was taking charge on the other end.
In the fourth, the gap just got to be too much for the Pacers, who would bring the lead down to eight on multiple occasions, but struggle to get stops or pull in rebounds, allowing the Bucks to push it back out to double figures immediately. Antetokounmpo was a big part in ensuring the lead would never get to within two possessions, even as Indiana’s offense continued to put points on the board.
In the end, the Pacers fell 142-133, allowing the Bucks to shoot 57% for the game and outscore them 23-12 at the free throw line. Antetokounmpo was a big reason for both of those numbers, as he finished with 40 points on 14-18 shooting and made 11 free throws on his own.
Holiday led the way for the Pacers with 26 points, making eight threes on the night on 8-12 shooting. The Pacers as a team dipped under 50% from three, going 21-43, providing Milwaukee just enough of a buffer to close out the win. Oshae Brissett also piled on the three pointers, going 5-8 for 19 points. Doug McDermott had three himself, finishing with 19.
McConnell finished the night with 23 points, seven assists, and three steals, playing 45 minutes. He would’ve almost certainly gone the whole 48 had he not left the game with his thumb injury, providing a steady hand in a difficult situation. Though he had four turnovers, he ensured they wouldn’t fall on anyone else as Indiana finished with just eight for the game.
Unfortunately, each turnover proved costly, with Milwaukee topping the Pacers 17-8 in points off turnovers. Indiana also allowed 78 points in the paint, again aiding Milwaukee’s field goal percentage, but outside of the stretch early in the fourth, did a good enough job on the glass despite finishing -11, outrebounding the Bucks on the offensive end 12-10.
Sabonis led the way for the Pacers with 14 assists, 13 of those coming in the first half. Scoring proved to be a struggle for him in his run, scoring just 10 on 5-19 shooting. Many of the shots he missed were ones that had been going in, another “what if” wrinkle in the game.
Off the bench, JaKarr Sampson led the way with 14 points. Bitadze had 10, leading the way with six free throw attempts and four bench assists, and Kelan Martin scored in double figures with 12, pulling in nine rebounds. Cassius Stanley went scoreless in his brief run, but after an early miss on a feed from Sabonis, he avoided the same mistake with a nice dish back to Sabonis on a play.
The Pacers drop to 33-37 with the loss, holding steady in a tie for 8th as Charlotte lost their game tonight against the Clippers. An idle Washington sits one game back as all three games have two games remaining. For the Pacers, that starts on Saturday afternoon with the first of two weekend matinees against the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Lakers may or may not be able to avoid the play-in games by the time Saturday rolls around, but they will be eyeing the return of LeBron James as he’ll work towards a return for the postseason. Washington meanwhile will have a home game tomorrow against Cleveland, giving them a great opportunity to pick up a win.
Charlotte will be dealt a tougher hand to start their last two games, traveling to face New York, who currently sit in a tie for 5th with a surging Miami team. The outcome for the Pacers will require less scoreboard watching on Sunday, as Charlotte will face Washington while the Pacers close out the season in Tampa to face the Raptors to ultimately determine the 8-10 seeding.