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Pacers final score: Bucks hold off Pacers 141-131

Indiana clawed back to within seven after trailing by 33 in the first half against Milwaukee, but were no match in the end for the Bucks. Myles Turner led the Pacers with 24 points.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

It may have taken 24 minutes tonight, but the Indiana Pacers finally showed some life against a Giannis Antetokounmpo-led Milwaukee Bucks squad. The Pacers, having lost nine straight to Milwaukee overall have actually lost more consecutive games when Antetokounmpo plays, entering tonight at 10 straight losses.

The number of losses speak for themselves, but the margin of defeat, 16 points per game, goes to show how ugly things have been overall. So of course, it was no surprise when Antetokounmpo and the Bucks came out with guns blazing, shooting 9-16 from three point range.

Indiana, to their credit, did a solid job keeping pace with Milwaukee’s shooting for a while, trailing by only three with about three minutes remaining in the first, but Khris Middleton provided a huge boost late in the first, scoring seven as part of a 12-3 run that pushed the Bucks ahead by double figures. Wesley Matthews finished off the first with a three that capped a 45-point quarter, extending the lead to 15.

From there, it just fell apart for the Pacers. They were already overmatched trying to keep pace offensively with the Bucks, but even a solid scoring half from Bennedict Mathurin wasn’t enough to slow down the barrage of points as Milwaukee extended the lead to 20, then 26, then 33, leading 85-52 with 30 seconds remaining in the half.

Aaron Nesmith hit a three to end the half, cutting the lead to 29 at the break. It was a bear of a first half for Indiana, allowing 63% shooting to Milwaukee with 13 three pointers. It was the kind of half where even Pacer positives were turned into negatives fairly quickly be it steals turning into turnovers or a sharp Myles Turner block against Antetokounmpo immediately turning into two points for the former MVP under the basket.

Indiana started to come alive to start the third quarter. Turner and Buddy Hield each hit threes to cut the deficit to 23, but each step forward continued to be met with resistance, still leading by 27 midway through the third. Hield connected on his second three of the quarter, scoring seven straight points and finally cutting the lead to 20.

It didn’t get any closer for the time being, but Hield would again kickstart a Pacers run, connecting on an and-one opportunity and hitting a third three as part of a 12-2 Indiana run that cut the lead to 13 as T.J. McConnell got on the floor, finding Jalen Smith for the dunk.

That capped a 43-point quarter for Indiana, outscoring the Bucks by 14. To start the fourth, Andrew Nembhard turned the ball over on an errant pass to Myles Turner, but keyed in to score the next six, feeding off of a jumper near the free throw line. While Indiana was pushing back, the Bucks were able to counter by bringing Antetokounmpo back into the game, leading to nine quick points that pushed the advantage to 16.

Despite struggling with rebounding for much of the game, the Pacers were able to cobble together enough force on the glass to string together three straight stops, enough to get Chris Duarte and Hield to each hit threes, in addition to a beautiful pass the basket from Duarte to Turner that suddenly made it a single digit game for the first time since late in the first quarter.

With about four minutes remaining, the Pacers employed the hack-a-Giannis defense, intentionally sending Antetokounmpo to the free throw line. It was a sound decision at the time as Antetokounmpo was 2-9 at the line to that point. He responded well enough by shooting 5-7 in that stretch, but Indiana was unable to capitalize on the other end, missing free throws of their own, only able to climb to within seven at 134-127 following a split trip from Mathurin.

With two minutes left, the Pacers were unable to get any more stops, allowing the Bucks to score on their next three possessions, pushing the lead back out to double figures and ending Indiana’s surprising comeback attempt, dropping their 11th straight to Antetokounmpo and 10th straight to Milwaukee.

Though a 10-point loss doesn’t look out of place alongside all of their other losses to the Bucks, it was one of their most encouraging halves of basketball against their Central Division rivals. Indiana outscored Milwaukee 75-58 in the second half, holding the Bucks to 41% shooting and 5-19 from three point range.

Unfortunately, as is the case with any comeback when down a laughable amount, the opponent doesn’t have to hit shots at a high rate, they just have to hit them at a high enough rate and Milwaukee did just that tonight, making each three feel like a dagger until Grayson Allen’s three with 1:24 remaining became one.

The Pacers also didn’t make threes at a high enough rate in the second half, shooting 7-16, though they did shoot 67% overall in the final two quarters, including 84.6% in the paint after going just 8-19 in the first half. Rebounding also improved somewhat, but was still lacking overall, as Milwaukee outscored Indiana 25-12 in second chance points, pulling in 14 boards to Indiana’s five.

Turner led the way for Indiana with 24 points and five rebounds, blocking four shots. Turner struggled with fouls as times, but was able to stay in the game, leading the Pacers in minutes with 36. He shot 10-20 overall, including a pair of threes. Hield meanwhile had 22 points on 8-13 shooting, hitting five of his nine attempts from three.

McConnell nearly had another double double, scoring 19 points with nine assists, leading the starters with six rebounds and three steals, including one of his patented inbounds steals.

Duarte remained in the starting lineup even with Nembhard returning, taking full advantage of his run by scoring 17 points on 7-11 shooting with six assists. Duarte has really come around after a tough stretch following his return from injury, scoring in double figures in seven of the last nine games and averaging 4.7 assists since moving into the starting lineup.

Off the bench, Mathurin led the way with 21 points with eight rebounds, shooting 8-9 from the free throw line, his lone miss coming in the fourth quarter with a chance to cut it to six. He was 6-12 overall from the floor, but struggled with turnovers tonight, committing five. His fellow rookie Nembhard has similar issues, turning it over four times, but did have eight of his nine points in the fourth quarter.

Surprisingly, the Pacers limited Milwaukee’s damage in transition, allowing just nine points off turnovers and outscoring them 18-11. The five extra makes for the Bucks made all the difference in the final score, but Indiana’s struggles with rebounding didn’t help much, neither did their poor free throw shooting, going just 20-28 as a team, bringing their three game total to 20 total missed free throws.

They’ve got 1-2 in that stretch, unfortunately having dropped their last two. The Pacers fall to 1-9 in their last 10 and 24-26 overall, falling to 2-9 overall without Tyrese Haliburton as the team awaits his return. The Pacers remain in the play-in range despite all of this losing, currently sitting in ninth, but are now two backs back of eighth place Atlanta and just one game up on 12th place Toronto, making holding onto that play-in spot incredibly difficult moving forward.

The schedule will remain tough heading into next week, starting off with one road game against the Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizzlies have lost five straight games since rattling off 11 straight, but to call them vulnerable for the Pacers still appears like a lofty declaration.