How the Bucks’ regular-season matchups with Pacers changed Milwaukee’s season

EditorLast Update :
How the Bucks’ regular-season matchups with Pacers changed Milwaukee’s season

The Milwaukee Bucks’ last matchup against the Indiana Pacers left Giannis Antetokounmpo contemplating his team’s mortality.

“They played harder. They’re being more physical. They executed better,” Antetokounmpo said after the game. “They’re making shots. They’re playing together. They’re playing fast. They’re crashing the boards. They’re guarding. They’re loading, they are double teaming. And they’re rebounding the ball. That’s why they were able to win four times this season.

“I know right now it feels like the end of the world, but it’s not the end of the world. It was good because we’re going to play with more urgency, we’re going to respect opponents more, we’re gonna execute better. And now, I think we realize as a team that there’s teams out there that can beat us four times in a season.”

That was Jan. 3. The Pacers’ 142-130 beatdown of the Bucks was Indiana’s fourth win over Milwaukee in the regular season and the first time an Antetokounmpo-led team had lost four games to a single team in the regular season since the Toronto Raptors swept the Bucks in the 2015-16 regular season. That was the season before Antetokounmpo made his first All-NBA team.



Film study: Why Bucks have something to ‘think about’ after another loss to the Pacers

And while the two teams haven’t seen each other in over three months, it’s easy to see how significant a role the Pacers played in the Bucks’ season and why it feels preordained for them to meet again in the postseason.

The last meeting between these teams more than three months ago was the beginning of the end for former Bucks head coach Adrian Griffin in Milwaukee.

After losing to the Pacers in Indianapolis, the Bucks went to San Antonio where they squeaked out a victory over the Spurs, who had not yet fully unleashed Victor Wembanyama. Then, the Bucks remained in Texas for a game against the Houston Rockets. Despite a 48-point, 17-rebound effort from Antetokounmpo, the Bucks lost 112-108 in Houston and after the game, the Bucks’ superstar blasted his team’s effort.

“We have to be better,” Antetokounmpo said. “We have to play better. We have to defend better. We have to trust one another better. We have to be coached better. Every single thing, everybody has to be better.

“Everybody. It starts from the equipment manager. He has to wash our clothes better. The bench has to be better. The leaders of the team have to be more vocal. We have to make more shots. We have to defend better. We have to have better strategy. We have to be better … We have four months to get better, so let’s see.”



‘There was no pride’: Giannis Antetokounmpo blasts Bucks’ defense after loss to Rockets

Two nights later in Milwaukee, the Bucks were blown out by the Utah Jazz, 132-116. After Antetokounmpo called for the whole team to be better and bring effort and fire to the rest of their season, the Bucks gave up 11 3-pointers to the Jazz in the first quarter and never came close to beating Utah. Two weeks later, Griffin was fired and the Bucks moved onto Doc Rivers.

But the Pacers didn’t just play a role in the end of Griffin’s time in Milwaukee with their back-to-back wins over the Bucks in January, they were part of two of the other major Bucks storylines of the first half of the season.

To start the season, the Bucks were struggling to find their way. But starting with a Nov. 13 win over the Chicago Bulls, Milwaukee won 10 out of 12 games. The 10th win in those 12 games was the In-Season Tournament quarterfinals over the New York Knicks in Milwaukee, moving the Bucks into the semifinals against the Pacers in Las Vegas two days later.

The Pacers beat the Bucks, 128-119 to advance to the In-Season Tournament finals, but that loss was more than just a single loss towards the Bucks’ 49-33 regular season record; that loss revealed many of the Bucks’ biggest problems on the league’s new midseason stage.

Tyrese Haliburton carved up the Bucks with 27 points and 15 assists. The Bucks were not alone in their struggles to defend Haliburton at the start of the season, but their point-of-attack defense looked particularly helpless that night. With Griffin insistent on trying to pressure the ball, Haliburton blew by the Bucks’ perimeter defenders all night:

While the Bucks struggled to contain Haliburton defensively, they scored efficiently enough to stay in the game and give themselves a chance to take the lead late, but a turnover by Khris Middleton with just over two minutes remaining helped seal the Bucks’ fate:

A minute after the turnover from Middleton, Haliburton worked in isolation against a switch from Brook Lopez and nailed a stepback 3. After that shot, Haliburton pointed to his wrist, mocking Damian Lillard’s signature celebration, and talked trash to the Bucks.

After the game, multiple Bucks players talked about the team’s disorganization late in games under Griffin. In their postgame press conferences, both Lillard and Antetokounmpo talked about not being sure what the Bucks were trying to do on late possessions because Griffin did not give them clear direction. In the locker room, the same conversations were happening. Bobby Portis raised his voice on the topic and challenged Griffin to be better leading the team.

That game was not the first time any of those problems popped up, but the increased attention put a greater strain on the team. The same could be said of what happened when the Bucks met the Pacers six days later in Milwaukee.

With the loss in the In-Season Tournament semifinals still on their minds, the Bucks came out determined to get payback. With a 140-126 victory in Milwaukee on Dec. 13, they did just that. Antetokounmpo was dominant, scoring 64 points, setting a single-game Bucks franchise record, but that night will be remembered by most for what eventually occurred after the game.

Under Griffin, the Bucks’ deep reserves had a terrible habit of letting teams back into the game after both teams had pulled their starters and rotation players from games. With 3:25 remaining, Antetokounmpo went to the free-throw line with a chance to break the Bucks’ single-game record for points, then 57 by Michael Redd, with two free throws. He hit both to set the new franchise mark and give the Bucks a 19-point lead. After those free throws, Antetokounmpo intentionally fouled and Griffin took out his starters.

A minute later though, the Pacers had cut the Bucks’ lead to 10 and Griffin brought his starters back into the game with 2:05 remaining. Antetokounmpo went back to work to close out the game and added six more points to his total, the final two coming on a thunderous dunk where Antetokounmpo was already behind the defense. And the Pacers took exception to that.

When the game ended, most of the Pacers walked off the floor and did not stick around to shake hands and chat with the Bucks, but the real controversy started when Antetokounmpo saw the Pacers walking off the floor with one of the game balls. Antetokounmpo was under the impression that was the primary game ball with which he had set the Bucks’ record and not the alternate game ball, so he stormed up the tunnel.

As security separated Antetokounmpo from the Pacers and brought him back on the floor, the Bucks’ star got in Haliburton’s face and told him to go get the ball.

Ultimately, it appeared as though the Bucks were in possession of the game ball the entire time, but the incident stuck with people around the league. Much was written about it in the days afterwards and Haliburton even talked about the incident on J.J. Redick’s podcast two months later.

All season long, there seems to be something that has attracted the Bucks and Pacers too each other. Even in exhibitions, they somehow have interconnected stories. At the 2024 NBA All-Star Game, Lillard won All-Star Game MVP and accepted the trophy to a chorus of boos from the Indianapolis crowd who wanted Haliburton to win the award in front of the home crowd.

An awful lot has changed in the three months since these teams last connected on the floor. The Bucks have a new head coach in Rivers. The Pacers have a totally different roster with the midseason trade for Pascal Siakam and the injuries that have limited Haliburton. And yet, here they are, connected and ready to go head-to-head in the first round of the 2024 NBA Playoffs.

It all seems meant to be.

(Photo: Tyrese Haliburton and Giannis Antetokounmpo: Stacy Revere / Getty Images)