‘Atrocious’ and ‘embarrassed’: Pacers give up 85 in first half, fall to Giannis and Bucks
INDIANAPOLIS — The Pacers fell behind by more than 30 in the first half and their wild comeback fell short in an 141-131 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday night at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.
The Pacers have lost nine of 10 games since point guard Tyrese Haliburton injured his left elbow and knee Jan. 11. They fell to 24-27, going three games under .500 for the first time since their 1-4 start Oct. 26. The Bucks improved to 32-17.
Here are four observations.
The Pacers didn’t see a full-strength Bucks squad when the teams met in Milwaukee on Jan. 16 as they were missing former MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and Olympic gold medalist Khris Middleton. The Bucks still won that game and showed Friday night now unstoppable they can be when they have those two and are close to full strength.
The Pacers kept up with the Bucks’ torrid pace for the game’s first nine minutes, matching Milwaukee almost bucket-for-bucket and trailed just 30-27. The Pacers slowed down at that point, though, and the Bucks didn’t until after halftime. They finished the first quarter with a 15-3 run to go up 45-30 en route to one of the most explosive scoring halves of this NBA season.
The Bucks made 16 of 27 first-quarter field goals, including 9 of 16 3-pointers, in the first quarter then kept rolling to finish the first half 33 of 52 from the field (63.5%) and 13 of 24 for 3 for 85 points. They posted 32 points in the paint, an incredible 1.48 points per possession. They had five players in double figures in the first 24 minutes with Middleton scoring 17 and Antetokounmpo 15. Jrue Holiday, Brook Lopez and reserve Jevon Carter had 10 each. The Bucks led by as many as 33 points. They were up 85-56 at the half and their lead was only trimmed under 30 point because of a late 3 by Indiana’s Aaron Nesmith.
“The ball is moving,” Antetokounmpo said. “People are knocking down shots. I felt like it was such a great energy. I don’t think there was a possession when anybody held the ball more than two or three seconds and tried to go one-on-one. Guys were open. A lot of 3s. We were able to attack downhill, get easy ones. When you are out there and there are so many threats, it’s hard, you have to choose your poison.”
And on the flip side, the Pacers didn’t establish nearly enough presence to make the Bucks’ lives difficult. It was yet another brutal start in a season full of them, and Pacers coach Rick Carlisle was particularly bothered by this one after the Pacers gave up 46 first-quarter points to the Magic on Wednesday and fell behind 20-5 to start Tuesday’s game against the Bulls.
“It was a difficult and ugly start to the game,” Carlisle said. “I just think we’ve gotta make a stand as a team and just decide that we’re gonna compete better at the start of games. Milwaukee is talented. Giannis is great. Holiday’s great. Middleton is a hell of a player. It just can’t be coming out of halftime and being embarrassed and deciding at that point to really start competing at the highest possible level that we can compete. We gotta fix this. I don’t think it’s an overnight fix.”
The Pacers starters acknowledged that it was a problem that falls on them.
“Yes, they made some tough shots, but we said that the last time we played them,” center Myles Turner said. “Our effort in the first quarter, it just has to be there defensively. Extra rotations, even offensively, we’ve gotta assert ourselves a bit more. I think we waited too long to really assess who we were going to be that night. We just waited way too long. … It’s on the starters, man. It really is.”
If there’s one thing the Pacers can say for themselves about what they’ve done well in Tyrese Haliburton’s absence, it’s that they haven’t laid down when they’ve been down big.
In the third quarter, the Pacers made 18 of their 24 shots, including 4 of 9 3-pointers and 14 of 15 shots inside the arc to outscore the Bucks 43-29 to get the game back within 15 points. Buddy Hield scored 16 points on 6 of 7 shooting in the quarter and T.J. McConnell scored 10 on 5 of 5 shooting to help will a comeback by themselves.
The Pacers didn’t take the foot off the pedal in the fourth quarter and remarkably came within seven points. They outscored the Bucks 75-56 after the break and shot 30 of 45 from the floor (66.7%). while holding Milwaukee to 41.3% after they were torched in the first half. Hield finished with 19 of his 22 points in the second half. McConnell scored 13 of his 19 points after the break on 6 of 6 shooting, but it ultimately wasn’t enough to dig out of that big of a hole and the Pacers weren’t taking much pride in the comeback after the game.
“The coaches got after us because the starts that we’ve been getting off to are just atrocious,” McConnell said. “We’re not gonna be a team that is a moral victory team. We played great in the second half but it’s already too late. We fought hard, but we lost and it’s because of the way we started. We’ve proven in the second half we can play with them, but like Myles said, the starts have to be better.”
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The Pacers got as close as 11 points in the fourth quarter after trailing by more than 30, but that was the point when Antetokounmpo asserted himself as one of the best players on Earth and arguably the most unstoppable physical force in the game.
With bullying drives to the paint and powerful finishes including a violent dunk over Oshae Brissett, Antetokounmpo scored 16 of his 41 points in the fourth quarter. He finished 16 of 29 from the field for the game including 2 of 7 from 3-point range. He also grabbed 12 rebounds and had six assists.
“We just kind of leaned on Giannis,” Holiday said. “And he does what he does.”
The only method the Pacers found to make Antetokounmpo feel uncomfortable was putting him on the line where he made just 7 of 18 free throws and has had historically had trouble. He was 6 of 12 there in the fourth quarter when the Pacers were aggressively hacking him. However, he seemed more comfortable the more they fouled him. He made five of his last eight to help put the game away.
“I thought about it while I was out there,” Antetokounmpo said. “I could let it get away from me or I could step up to the line and try to knock down my free throws. I was like, ‘OK, I’m just going to stand here, you’re going to foul me, I’ll just wait for it and try to walk to the free throw line and knock it down.’ At the end of the day, I’ve missed 10 in a row. I’ve been 1 for 10. I’ve made 15 for 15. What’s it? It’s a free throw. It’s a freaking free throw. I’m not going to make it bigger than what it is.”
Turner checked himself out of Wednesday night’s game against the Magic with a mild ankle sprain and was listed as questionable on Friday, but he played and seemed to relish the opportunity to match up with Antetokounmpo. He didn’t match the two-time MVP, but he made sure his presence was felt.
Turner’s nine first-quarter points kept the game from getting out of hand early and he had eight in the third quarter to help the Pacers claw back in. He finished with 24 points on 10 of 20 shooting, five rebounds and four blocks in 36 minutes.
“Between the lines, there’s no excuses, you just roll,” Turner said. “I wouldn’t have played if I wasn’t feeling alright. At this point of the year, there’s some stuff you have to play through. That was the case for the night.”