Bucks-Pacers preview: Can Milwaukee keep pace with Indiana without Giannis?

The Eastern Conference’s third-seeded Milwaukee Bucks (49-33) will face the sixth-seeded Indiana Pacers (47-35) in the first round of the 2024 NBA playoffs. The two teams have not met in the postseason since 2000, when Reggie Miller, Jalen Rose and Dale Davis' Pacers beat Ray Allen, Sam Cassell and Glenn Robinson's Bucks.

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How the Bucks got here

It has been a wild ride. The Bucks fired head coach Mike Budenholzer and traded veteran guard Jrue Holiday, both of whom helped them to a championship in 2021, respectively replacing them with first-year head coach Adrian Griffin and perennial All-Star Damian Lillard. The results have been ... dramatic?

Griffin feuded with lead assistant coach Terry Stotts, who quit in training camp. It took five games for the coaching staff to abandon its new defensive scheme and revert to the drop coverage that was a staple of Milwaukee's success under Budenholzer. Players publicly and privately criticized every aspect of the organization, from effort to equipment management, before the Bucks fired Griffin in favor of Doc Rivers at the end of January. Rivers briefly boosted morale, only for their malaise to reach the surface again.

All the while, Milwaukee's defense has cratered year over year from a top-five outfit to 19th. Lillard and Malik Beasley are not ball stoppers. Khris Middleton spent the season on a minutes limit from mounting injuries that have hindered his defensive impact. The veteran depth of Bobby Portis, Jae Crowder and Pat Connaughton left the Bucks searching for answers, and a deadline trade for 35-year-old Patrick Beverley was a minor defensive repair. Giannis Antetokounmpo and veteran center Brook Lopez mask only so much.

Yet Milwaukee managed to stay on the top end of the standings, largely because Antetokounmpo is one of the league's three best players, and Lillard can still reach extraordinary offensive heights in important moments. This is where we come to the most troubling news for the Bucks: Antetokounmpo suffered a non-contact calf strain in last week's convincing victory against the top-seeded Boston Celtics that could cost him anywhere from a couple weeks to a couple months, and we are on the early side of his timeline.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - JANUARY 03: Tyrese Haliburton #0 of the Indiana Pacers celebrates in the fourth quarter of the 142-130 win against the Milwaukee Bucks at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on January 03, 2024 in Indianapolis, Indiana.    NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Tyrese Haliburton was playing like an MVP candidate early in the season. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

How the Pacers got here

The Pacers were a preseason pick for a possible playoff surprise, and Tyrese Haliburton delivered on that promise, performing like an MVP candidate for the first few months of the season. His playmaking, which includes a league-leading 10.9 assists per game, was the rising tide that lifted everyone on Indiana's boat.

Haliburton's arrival restored veteran center Myles Turner's faith in Indiana, and nobody on the Pacers has improved more than Aaron Nesmith, who has developed into a legitimate 3-and-D weapon. An offseason trade for Obi Toppin added more bounce to the frontcourt. Second-year guards Bennedict Mathurin and Andrew Nembhard navigated sophomore slumps to settle into significant roles, until Mathurin's season-ending shoulder surgery. Still, Indiana remains young and hungry to excel — and fast and fun to watch.

The Pacers performed so well they pulled the trigger on a trade for two-time All-NBA forward Pascal Siakam, adding a second star in a long-term quest for three, and it cost them little more from the active roster than recent free-agent signing Bruce Brown. A team that figured to be a real threat in the Eastern Conference became less so when Haliburton suffered a mid-January left hamstring strain. His pre-injury averages of 23.6 points (on 50/40/87 shooting splits) and 12.5 assists per game have dipped to 16.8 points (46/32/84) and 9.3 assists a night ever since, and he has looked like a player in need of a week's respite.

It did not help that Indiana dealt impending free agent Buddy Hield at the trade deadline, sending a signal that the Pacers do not consider themselves a fully formed threat, at least not yet. But the net result was still the NBA's second-rated offense and a team that no longer catches anyone by surprise.

Head to head

Indiana won the season series, 4-1. All five meetings, including an in-season tournament semifinal, came before both Haliburton's injury and the trade for Siakam. Still, there are several takeaways that remain.

First, Antetokounmpo was incredible. He averaged 42.2 points (on 67.6% shooting from the field), 13 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game against the Pacers. He scored a career-high 64 points in Milwaukee's lone victory. He scored 54 in another and lost by two. He did all of this, and the Bucks still finished 1-4.

And now Milwaukee might not have Antetokounmpo at all. That is concerning.

Just as concerning: Three of the Bucks' eight fastest-paced games this season were with the Pacers, who ran Milwaukee ragged, scoring 122 points per 100 possessions. Following the IST semifinal loss, the Bucks' frustration boiled over, as Portis "passionately challenged" his coach and teammates about their effort.

Even after Milwaukee's lone win against Indiana, Antetokounmpo lost his cool. He berated the Pacers about the game ball from his 64-point night in a weird scene that was emblematic of a weird season. Recent champions only concern themselves with teams that threaten them, and this is a budding rivalry.

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - JANUARY 01: Tyrese Haliburton #0 of the Indiana Pacers dribbles the ball against Damian Lillard #0 of the Milwaukee Bucks during the second half at Fiserv Forum on January 01, 2024 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images )
How will Damian Lillard and Tyrese Haliburton match up with each other? (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images )

Matchup to watch

The battle between All-Star point guards

The real matchup is Giannis vs. the soleus muscle in his left calf, but we cannot watch that.

So, keep an eye on Haliburton and Lillard, how much they hunt each other and how Indiana exploits any cross-matching with pace. Neither is a great defender, but Haliburton has length and youth on his side.

Indiana hid Haliburton on Beasley on the defensive end, leaving Hield or Brown on Lillard, but neither is around to do that dirty work anymore. In all likelihood, Nembhard draws the assignment, and he has been a pest to some quality point guards since assuming a starting role, even if he has not spent much time on Lillard. The little time he has, though, he held Lillard to five points on 2-for-6 shooting in 6:25.

In fact, Lillard's production against anyone on the Pacers was well below his standard. His 20.3 points per game against Indiana this season were the result of 32.4% shooting from the field (26.5% from distance).

Nobody defended Haliburton more this season than Beasley, who spent 20:24 over five games opposite the All-Star point guard. The results were not great for the Bucks. Haliburton logged 38 points (16-for-29 shooting) and 13 assists in those minutes, as the Pacers scored 118.6 points per 100 possessions. Lillard had far more success in half the time, but asking him to carry that load on both ends is too tall an order.

Closing lineups

Milwaukee Bucks
Of the 27 five-man lineups across the league that played more than 250 minutes together this season, Milwaukee produced a pair with the two highest net ratings: Antetokounmpo, Lillard, Lopez, Beasley and either Crowder (+15.6 points per 100 possessions in 293 minutes) or Middleton (+15.1 in 599 minutes).

That is the reason for optimism from a team that won the title just three seasons ago, but we may not see either one of them in the playoffs. Antetokounmpo is unlikely to begin the series (and maybe even appear at all). Portis will get the call instead, and he has been just as potent alongside Lillard, Beasley, Lopez and Connaughton, albeit in a total of 205 possessions. There is no replicating Antetokounmpo.

The playoffs are a different animal, and Beasley could become another target for Indiana's offense. That could open the door for more Beverley. Without Antetokounmpo, Rivers will search for whatever works.

Indiana Pacers
The Pacers, on the other hand, will close with the same starting lineup they have played since the Mathurin injury — Haliburton, Siakam, Turner, Nesmith and Nembhard. They have outscored opponents by 6.4 points per 100 possessions in 444 minutes. They also have not played a minute against the Bucks.


Pacers in six. This is assuming Antetokounmpo does not make a speedy recovery. If he does come back before it is too late, I can see him willing the Bucks to victory by Game 7. He is the Greek Freak, after all.

Otherwise, the Bucks are without their best defender against a team they could not stop even when Antetokounmpo was in the lineup. Beyond Lillard reaching heights he has not consistently climbed this season or Middleton rediscovering the full range of athleticism that made him a three-time All-Star, it is hard to imagine a hobbled Milwaukee manufacturing enough points and stops to keep pace with Indiana.

Series odds

Milwaukee Bucks (-130)
Indiana Pacers (+110)

Series schedule (all times Eastern)

Game 1: Sun., April 21 @ Milwaukee (7 p.m. ET, TNT)
Game 2: Tue., April 23 @ Milwaukee (8:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV)
Game 3: Fri., April 26 @ Indiana (5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Game 4: Sun., April 28 @ Indiana (7 p.m. ET, TNT)
Game 5: Tue., April 30 @ Milwaukee (TBD)*
Game 6: Thu., May 2 @ Indiana (TBD)*
Game 7: Sat., May 4 @ Milwaukee (TBD)*

*if necessary