Pacers take four of five from Milwaukee
INDIANAPOLIS — When it was over, after three more technical fouls and some overall chippy-ness, the two sides parted amicably.
Even the central figure of the game-ball related fracas after Milwaukee’s win on Dec. 13 — Giannis Antetokounmpo — lingered after Indiana’s 142-130 win over the Bucks on Wednesday to shake hands with several Pacers. Those notably included James Johnson Jr., the revered veteran who played for the Pacers last season but didn’t have a team this year until Indiana scooped him up on Dec. 14, the day after Antetokounmpo ran into the tunnel heading to the Pacers’ locker room to try to get what he thought was the ball he’d just just used to score a Bucks franchise-record 64 points.
The internet presumption — which the Pacers immediately tried to snuff out by noting that they’d been in touch with Johnson for weeks since a lunch near his home in Miami — was that Indiana had signed the karate black belt as an enforcer just in case the 6-11, 250-pound two-time MVP Antetokounmpo tried to start something else. But after the fifth and final regular season game the two teams will play against each other this season, they shook hands, and embraced. Johnson answered a covered-mouth question from Antetokounmpo — the Bally Sports Indiana broadcast picked up Johnson saying the words “I was already on my way” — and lovingly pounded his fist on Antetokounmpo’s chest before the two smiled, laughed and walked away in separate directions.
There were ways in which it felt like teams parting ways at the end of an epic playoff series as they, at least individually, implied that after all the nastiness of a grueling series there would be no hard feelings. The Central Division foes played each other five times since Nov. 9 — thanks to a In-Season Tournament semifinal game — with the last two coming Monday in Milwaukee and Wednesday at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. And now, they won’t meet again this season unless they draw each other in the playoffs.
“In the history of this league there’s never been a series like this one because there was no In-Season Tournament thrown in the middle of it in a neutral venue with stage lighting,” Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said. “It’s so different out there.”
Its therefore notable, of course, that if the series had been a playoff, the Pacers would be the ones moving on to the next round.
They took four of the five meetings — both home games, one of the two road games, and the neutral-site game that allowed them to advance to the IST Finals. At 24-10, the Bucks still sit in second in the Eastern Conference, a half-game above the 76ers and 2 1/2 back of the Celtics. However the Pacers can claim responsibility for 40% of Milwaukee’s losses.
It’s only one team, but resoundingly winning a historically-long season series against an NBA title contender less than three years removed from its last championship is a mark of franchise progress. Starting March 4, 2020, the Bucks beat the Pacers 10 straight times. Milwaukee won 16 of 19 games from the 2018-19 season through 2022-23.
But on Wednesday, the Bucks had to acknowledge they’d been handled over the course of this season by a Pacers team that hasn’t been part of a playoff series since the bubble in 2020. Going back to last season, the Pacers have won five of the last seven meetings.
“They played hard, played more physical, they executed better,” Antetokounmpo said. “They’re making shots, they’re playing together, they’re playing fast, they’re crashing the boards. They’re guarding, they’re loading, they’re double-teaming and they’re rebounding the ball. That’s how they were able to win four times this season.”
The Pacers previous three wins prior to Wednesday’s were, to some extent, nailbiters. But on Wednesday they blew the doors open with a 47-point third quarter that put them up by double digits for the entire fourth quarter. They made the Bucks look old, slow and tired, unable and unwilling to try to run with the speediest and most efficient offense in the league and also unable to physically punish them for their speed.
The Pacers were everything they hope to be. They were almost perfectly balanced from a scoring perspective. All-Star point guard Tyrese Haliburton put up the biggest numbers as per usual with 31 point and 12 assists, but six others scored in double figures while two more finished with nine. Haliburton was the only player who scored more than 16 points and he was one of just two who took more than nine field goal attempts.
The starters outside of Haliburton were 20 of 28 from the floor. The bench scored 59 points. They scored 64 points in the paint and 21 on fast-breaks. They even managed to win the rebounding battle, 44-42, and draw more fouls (27) than they committed (25), going to the line 34 times to the Bucks’ 32.
It was the sort of performance where success on one end begets success on the other that they’ve been looking for all year.
“I would just say we did a good job of digging down and getting stops when needed,” Haliburton said. “We did a good job of showing our hands and not fouling. … We kept showing our hands, making them finish over us, gang-rebounding. I thought we did a great job on the glass. That allows us to run. Like we’ve talked about, when we play in transition we’re a really tough team to beat, and I thought we did that tonight better than we have against these guys probably all year.”
The Pacers proved they could apply lessons learned and change and execute strategy in the course of a series. Carlisle decided to incorporate a three-man wall scheme against Antetokounmpo in Monday and Wednesday’s games holding him to 30 and 26 points respectively after he’d scored 54, 37 and 64 in the first three. They also showed they could keep focused on tasks at hand after the third game got emotional in a way that drew national attention.
“These are games I sort of mark on my calendar just being locked in for,” center Isaiah Jackson said. “We know guys are going to come in and try to push us around and be chippy and stuff. I think us coming in with that same mindset showed a lot about our team and what we can bring to the table as far as toughness is concerned.”
These last two wins in particular have helped the Pacers re-assert themselves as a rising force in the Eastern Conference. After their run to the In-Season Tournament Final gave them some early-season Cinderella-like shine, they followed their loss to the Lakers (that didn’t count toward the regular season standings) with losses in six of their next seven games. But they have now won five straight games since Christmas with the wins over the Bucks and Knicks.
A lineup shift that moved Jalen Smith to power forward and put wing Aaron Nesmith in the starting lineup added size and defensive grit, which helped, but so did finding some level of solid ground. The Las Vegas trip turned a seven-day road trip into a 12-day one in which the Pacers played games in three time zones. They returned home to play four more games in seven days. Three were at home, but two were part of a home-road back-to-back against Charlotte at home on Dec. 20 and Memphis on the road on Dec. 21.
“To have that bump in the middle of the year was such a high when you’re playing in front of so many fans,” Haliburton said. “Then you’re on the road, and it felt like we were on the road forever. Not an excuse at all, but guys were tired. It’s been good to have these homestands and Christmas, be around your family more. Just to get our legs back under us and get back going.”
Now at 19-14 they find themselves in a tier that seems to fit their overall trajectory. They’re fifth in the East, a half-game back of the Heat (20-14) for fourth. They’re four games back of the third-place 76ers and part of a five-team pack between fourth and eighth with the Magic, Cavaliers and Knicks who are all 19-15. Those teams are gaining some separation from the 15-20 Nets and 14-19 Bulls at ninth and 10th.
Staying with Miami, Orlando, Cleveland and New York bodes well for Pacers’ basic goal for 2023-24, which is to return to the playoffs, either by earning a top-six seed or through the play-in round. And if they can take four out of five from a powerhouse like the Bucks, even if it’s not in a playoff-scenario, they have reason to dream bigger.
First appeared on www.indystar.com