HomeSports2024 NBA Playoff Preview: Bucks vs. Series Breakdown and Prediction Pacers

2024 NBA Playoff Preview: Bucks vs. Series Breakdown and Prediction Pacers

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 met more in the postseason since 2000, when the Pacers of Reggie Miller, Jalen Rose and Dale Davis defeated Ray Allen, Sam Cassell and Glenn Robinson’s Bucks.


How the Bucks got here

It’s 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, replacing them with first-year head coach Adrian Griffin and perennial All-Star Damian Lillard, respectively. The results were… dramatic?

Griffin feuded with head assistant coach Terry Stotts, who quit in training camp. It took the coaching staff five games to abandon the new defensive scheme and return 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 in late January. The rivers briefly boosted morale, after which the malaise resurfaced.

All the while, Milwaukee’s defense has fallen from a top five ranking to 19th year over year. Lillard and Malik Beasley are not ball stoppers. Khris Middleton spent the season on a minutes limit due to mounting injuries that hampered his defensive impact. The veteran team 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 fix. Giannis Antetokounmpo and veteran center Brook Lopez are masking only to a limited extent.

Still, Milwaukee managed to stay at the top of the standings, especially since Antetokounmpo is one of the league’s top three players, and Lillard can still reach extraordinary offensive heights in key moments. This is where we get to the most troubling news for the Bucks: Antetokounmpo suffered a non-contact calf injury during last week’s convincing win against the top-seeded Boston Celtics, which could cost him a few weeks to a few months, and we are at the early end of his timeline.

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INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - JANUARY 03: Tyrese Haliburton #0 of the Indiana Pacers celebrates in the fourth quarter of the 142-130 victory against the Milwaukee Bucks at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on January 3, 2024 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that by downloading and/or using this photo, user agrees to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Tyrese Haliburton played 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 potential upset in the playoffs, and Tyrese Haliburton made good on that promise, performing like an MVP candidate through the first few months of the season. His play, which included 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 confidence in Indiana, and no one 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 resilience to the frontcourt. Sophomore guards Bennedict Mathurin and Andrew Nembhard weathered the sophomore slumps to establish themselves in key 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 that they pulled the trigger on a trade for two-time All-NBA forward Pascal Siakam, adding a second star in a lengthy search for three, and costing them little more from the active roster than the recent free agent – agent signing Bruce Brown. A team that seemed to be a real threat in the Eastern Conference became less so when Haliburton suffered a left hamstring strain in mid-January. His pre-injury averages of 23.6 points (on 50/40/87 shooting splits) and 12.5 assists per game have since dropped to 16.8 points (46/32/84) and 9.3 assists per night, and he looks like a player. need a week of rest.

It didn’t help that Indiana dealt impending free agent Buddy Hield at the trade deadline, sending a signal that the Pacers don’t consider themselves a fully formed threat, at least not yet. But the net result was still the NBA’s No. 2 offense and a team that no longer surprises anyone.


Head to head

Indiana won the season series 4-1. All five meetings, including the semifinals of the season tournament, took place before Haliburton’s injury And the trade for Siakam. Still, there are a few takeaways left.

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First off, 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 only win. 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 worrying.

Just as concerning, three of the Bucks’ eight fastest games this season came against the Pacers, who upset Milwaukee and scored 122 points per 100 possessions. After the IST semifinal loss, the Bucks’ frustration boiled over as Portis “passionately challenged” his coach and teammates about their efforts.

Even after Milwaukee’s lone win against Indiana, Antetokounmpo lost his cool. He berated the Pacers over the game ball of his 64-point night in a weird scene 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 1, 2024 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that by downloading and/or using this photo, user agrees to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)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 1, 2024 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that by downloading and/or using this photo, user agrees 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? (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

Match-up to watch

The battle of All-Star point guards.

The real match is between Giannis and the soleus muscle in his left calf, but we can’t look at that.

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

Indiana hid Haliburton on Beasley on defense, leaving Hield or Brown on Lillard, but neither is around to do that dirty work anymore. In all likelihood, Nembhard will draw the assignment, and he has been a nuisance to some quality guards since taking on a starting role, even if he hasn’t spent much time with Lillard. In what little time he had, however, he held Lillard to five points on 2-for-6 shooting in 6:25.

In fact, Lillard’s production against everyone on the Pacers was well below his level. His 20.3 points per game against Indiana this season came on 32.4% shooting from the field (26.5% from distance).

No one defended Haliburton more this season than Beasley, who played 20:24 over five games opposite the All-Star point guard. The results weren’t great for the Bucks. Haliburton recorded 38 points (16-for-29 shooting) and 13 assists in those minutes, while the Pacers scored 118.6 points per 100 possessions. Lillard had much more success in half the time, but asking him to carry that burden on both ends is too tall an order.

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Closing arrangements

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

That’s the reason for the optimism from a team that won the title just three seasons ago, but we don’t see either in the playoffs. Antetokounmpo is unlikely to start the series (and may not even appear at all). Instead, Portis gets the call, and he’s been just as powerful alongside Lillard, Beasley, Lopez and Connaughton, albeit with a total of 205 possessions. There is no replicating Antetokounmpo.

The playoffs are a whole different story, and Beasley could become another target for Indiana’s offense. That could open the door for more Beverly. Without Antetokounmpo, Rivers will look for what works.

Indiana Pacers
The Pacers, on the other hand, finish with the same starting lineup as they have since Mathurin’s injury: Haliburton, Siakam, Turner, Nesmith and Nembhard. They have outscored opponents by 6.4 points per 100 possessions in 444 minutes. They also haven’t played a minute against the Bucks.


Prediction

Pacers in six. This assumes that Antetokounmpo does not make a speedy recovery. If he comes back before it’s too late, I can see him driving the Bucks to victory in Game 7. He is the Greek Freak after all.

Otherwise, the Bucks will be without their best defenseman against a team they couldn’t stop even when Antetokounmpo was in the lineup. Short of Lillard reaching heights he hasn’t consistently climbed this season or Middleton rediscovering the full range of athleticism that made him a three-time All-Star, it’s hard to imagine a bumpy Milwaukee producing enough points and stops to keep pace with Indiana.


Series of opportunities

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


Series schedule (all times Eastern)

Game 1: Indiana at Milwaukee on Sunday (TBA)
Game 2: Indiana at Milwaukee (TBD)
Game 3: Milwaukee, Indiana (TBA)
Game 4: Milwaukee, Indiana (TBA)
*Game 5: Indiana at Milwaukee (TBA)
*Game 6: Milwaukee, Indiana (TBA)
*Game 7: Indiana at Milwaukee (TBA)

*If necessary

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