Insider: In stunning Bucks, Andrew Nembhard shows aggression Pacers want more of
MILWAUKEE -- On the first play of Thursday's second half, Andrew Nembhard took the inbound pass, walked the ball up to the frontcourt then patiently waited for center Myles Turner to set a screen behind Bucks guard Jrue Holiday.
Once Turner got there, the Pacers rookie point guard faked right and went left, rejecting the screen and blowing past one of the best on-ball defenders in the world. Giannis Antetokounmpo -- arguably the best player in the world -- stepped up to help and tried to ride on his hip, but Nembhard knocked him over and flipped in a right-handed finger-roll off the left side of the glass.
All that layup did in the moment was trim a nine-point Milwaukee lead over the Pacers to seven, but it was the start of an offensive avalanche. Nembhard had just three points in the first half and hadn't gotten to the rim at all. But once he did, he opened up the floor for perhaps the most impressive half of basketball the Pacers have played this season.
Nembhard's were the first two points of an 84-point half in which the Pacers turned a 64-55 deficit into a 139-123 victory over the NBA's best team and its third-best defense according to per-possession metrics. After a mediocre first half, the Pacers shot 70.2% from the floor (33 of 47) and an unconscious 68.4% from 3-point range (13 of 19) to finish with 22 3-pointers, their second highest figure of the season.
The win snapped a 10-game Bucks winning streak in the series going back to February of 2020 and it was the first time the Pacers won in Milwaukee since March 2, 2018. Fiserv Forum didn't open until later that year, so the Pacers had never won in the building, losing in all nine of their previous attempts.
They managed to finally snap all of those losing streaks on a night they were missing their All-Star, point guard Tyrese Haliburton, as well as one of the most talented rookies in the league in Bennedict Mathurin, both of them taken down by right ankle sprains within a week of each other. They are two of the Pacers' four top scorers, averaging close to 37 points per game. Prior to Thursday night, the Pacers were 3-12 this season in games Haliburton did not play.
But the Pacers slayed one of the league's giants without them, and it had a lot to do with Nembhard's change in approach and his 21 second-half points.
"I thought the biggest key to the game were the adjustments that Nembhard made at halftime to really make an emphasis on attacking to the rim,” Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said. "He did it, and that set the tone."
Whenever Haliburton is out with injury, all eyes immediately go to Nembhard. The second-round pick from Gonzaga still plays plenty when Haliburton is healthy, starting next to him as the nominal shooting guard, but he can avoid the spotlight. On the defensive side of the ball, he's always asked to guard the opponent's best perimeter scorer or its primary ball-handler, but on offense, he's a secondary ball-handler and not much else. Haliburton runs the offense with the focus on getting the ball to Myles Turner, Buddy Hield and Mathurin when he doesn't make plays for himself. Nembhard takes the occasional shot, but mostly moves the ball. He entered Thursday's game averaging 8.3 points per game on 7.7 field goal attempts compared to Haliburton's 15.1. He's been steady with the ball, averaging 4.0 assists to 1.6 turnovers per game, but has proven just OK as a shooter, making 42.3% of his field goals and 33.9% of his 3-pointers.
When Haliburton is out, though, Nembhard gets the keys to the Pacers' high-tempo offense. He is asked to run it at least close to as well as one of the best young playmakers in the league, a 20-point-per-game scorer and top-level closer who also ranks second in the NBA in assists. He has had some spectacular outings in that role and some that haven't quite hit that bar. In San Francisco on Dec. 5, the second game Haliburton missed this season, Nembhard authored one of the best individual performances of the Pacers' season with 31 points and 13 assists, leading Indiana to a stunning road win over defending NBA champion Golden State. However, in the 10 games Haliburton missed with an elbow sprain in January, Nembhard scored in double figures just twice. Nembhard missed two of those games with injury, including the only victory the Pacers earned in that span.
Thursday was heading toward one of his less impressive outings. He was 0 of 4 in the first quarter and Carlisle took him off the floor after just 4 minutes and 28 seconds. In the second quarter, Nembhard was a little more effective, knocking down a 3-pointer and playing 6:24, but at halftime, he was 1 of 7 from the field, 1 of 4 from 3. He had three points and two assists, and a plus-minus of -15.
So along with the coaching staff, he decided he needed to change things.
"I was just trying to be aggressive in transition, get downhill all the way to the rim instead of settling for mid-range shots," Nembhard said. "Just stayed aggressive, stayed confident in the second half. Shots were falling from all three levels."
The Pacers have been asking for more of that from Nembhard, because they believe he has it in him and they know from watching Haliburton that point guards who can get to the rim change everything.
"When Andrew actually puts his head down and goes to work, it's a fun thing to watch," Turner said. "We tell him all the time, 'You've got to be more aggressive. You need to be more aggressive.' But he's such a pass-first guy. Honestly, I'm not mad at it. I think he's a team-first guy, but he's a very special talent. He's going to shine in this league for years to come."
On the Pacers' second-possession of the second half, Nembhard nearly turned the ball over, but the Pacers scrambled to get it back and Nembhard whipped a pass in the corner for Jordan Nwora for a 3. Then on the next play he finished a left-handed layup through contact in transition, drawing the foul, but missing the free throw.
He started drawing attention, and that scrambled the Bucks defense. In the third quarter alone, he scored 10 points on 4 of 6 shooting with a pair of 3s and the Pacers were 19 of 26 from the floor, 8 of 11 from 3-point range, scoring 49 points at an astounding 1.80 points per possession clip.
"It was just a different geometric vision of the floor," Carlisle said. "Milwaukee's a great defensive team. They put you in the no-man's land areas of the floor. We needed to open up the floor and we needed to get some real pressure on the rim and he did that."
In the fourth, Nembhard added another 11 points on 5 of 8 shooting, going 9 of 14 in the second half with three 3-pointers on five attempts to go with three assists and no turnovers. His 24 points were his second-highest figure of the season behind only that magic night in San Francisco. He hadn't scored more than 19 in a game since.
Thursday was his fourth straight game in double figures. It's the first time he's had a streak that long, and he's averaging 18.0 per game in that span.
"Andrew is a special player,” veteran backup point guard T.J. McConnell said. “He proves it every night, whatever we need from him. On-ball, off-ball. I feel like people think he's a combo guard, but I feel like he can run our starting unit. Everything we've asked of him this year, he's done and he's guarded the best players on defense. He set the tone tonight."
The Pacers had other heroes on Thursday, McConnell among them. He too attacked the rim off the balance and finished with 19 points on 9 of 12 shooting and 12 assists, posting an astounding +36 when he was on the floor. The Pacers had eight players in double figures, including Aaron Nesmith with 22 and Buddy Hield with 20.
Together they earned a win that will resonate. The NBA obviously isn't college basketball. There are no such things as Quad 1 wins and the Pacers don't have a NET ranking that goes up because they beat the league's best team. They are still 32-38 and a 1/2 game back of the Washington Wizards for the No. 10 seed in the play-in round. Overtaking them won't be easy if Haliburton is out for an extended period, which Carlisle said is possible. He will at least miss the next three games, Carlisle said. Carlisle hasn't even begun to give a timeline on a return for Mathurin.
"I'm not gonna make too much of this, but this is a championship team," Carlisle said, referring to the Bucks. "This team won the championship two years ago. They had all three of their great players out there. To go toe-to-toe with them is meaningful. It's not like winning a championship or anything like that. But at the stage that we're at, as we're rebuilding this thing, these small steps that continue to lead us in a good direction are extremely important."
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Pacers vs. Bucks: Aggressive Andrew Nembhard leads comeback