INDIANAPOLIS — Khris Middleton has been with Giannis Antetokounmpo for more than 10 years now. He has been alongside Antetokounmpo for all 16,505 points that put the 11-year NBA pro atop of the Milwaukee Bucks’ career points leaderboard. And he could never recall seeing another defense do what the Indiana Pacers did on Thursday to get the ball out of Antetokounmpo’s hands.
With Damian Lillard sidelined with right calf soreness on Thursday, the second night of a back-to-back for the Bucks, Antetokounmpo served as the team’s point guard when Cam Payne was not on the floor throughout the night.
With Antetokounmpo already on his way to one of the highest-scoring games of his career in the third quarter, the Pacers started to send traps and double teams at the Bucks’ seven-time All-Star. On the other side of the half-court line. As he brought the ball up the floor, just to get the ball out of his hands.
“We just gotta do a better job of playing out of that double team,” Middleton said. “That’s something that I haven’t seen my whole career here — somebody getting trapped, or him getting trapped, at half-court. So it’s a great learning experience for us. We watched that film. We realize where the gaps are and how to attack. Hopefully, next game or next time that happens, we’ll be better at attacking it and executing.”
While that strategy never led to a turnover for Antetokounmpo, the collective effort put behind stopping the Bucks’ two-time NBA MVP ultimately kept Antetokounmpo from tallying a new single-game career high in points and allowed the Pacers (5-3) to pull out a comeback 126-124 win. Antetokounmpo was truly spectacular on Thursday, putting up 54 points on 19-of-25 shooting, which included a 16-of-18 performance at the free-throw line, as well as 12 rebounds and three assists.
One of one.
54 PTS | 76% FG | 12 REB | 3 AST pic.twitter.com/mcpLfMajm3
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) November 10, 2023
But even one of Antetokounmpo’s greatest regular-season performances wasn’t enough to hold off the Pacers as the Bucks (5-3) ran out of gas short of the finish line in Indianapolis on Thursday.
“Obviously, I was tired,” Antetokounmpo said. “Yesterday, I didn’t play a lot of minutes, but what people don’t understand is that it’s not about how many minutes I play in the game; it’s the preparation for the game. It’s shootaround, it’s lifting weights, recovery, pregame shooting, pregame warm-up, then you play the game. Like it’s so much (that goes) into the game. If I play 15 or 35 minutes, it doesn’t make a difference, I still feel tired.”
“So coming in today, I was extremely tired, but this is our job, we’ve gotta do what we gotta do. Try to compete and give everything we have on the second night of the back-to-back.”
Both the Bucks and Pacers were playing for a second consecutive night, but the Pacers were the team to jump out to an early lead with far more energy in the first quarter. Even though the Pacers have been one of the league’s highest-scoring and fastest-paced teams this season, their energy still caught the Bucks off guard. The Pacers took a 27-9 lead to open the game.
Bucks coach Adrian Griffin mucked up the Pacers’ offensive efforts in the second quarter with a long stretch of zone defense, which helped the Bucks claw back, but the team’s effort from the early deficit left the Bucks short on energy in the final period.
“In the second half, we had a chance to win,” Antetokounmpo said. “But they came back, made tough shots and we didn’t take care of the ball. I didn’t take care of the ball — two possessions that I could shoot the ball, I didn’t shoot the ball — but I was gassed and they (were) able to get a win. A lot of good things that we can learn from today, but we’ve got to get better. We’ve got to get better. Teams are scoring a lot of points on us right now. We’ve got to be better.”
As Antetokounmpo astutely pointed out, Thursday’s loss came down to two major factors: a lack of execution from the Bucks’ offense late in the game and not quite enough stops on defense.
Antetokounmpo was transcendent for the first 44 minutes, but just didn’t have quite enough left in the tank to close out the game with the extra attention the Pacers gave him throughout the second half. While the Bucks’ superstar forward highlighted his two turnovers in the final 90 seconds, the offensive struggles started a bit earlier for him.
As the Bucks tried to finish Thursday’s game, the Pacers started to turn up the pressure on Antetokounmpo with greater on-ball physicality and more double teams.
“They started trapping a lot more, trying to get the ball out of Giannis’ hands,” Griffin said. “It’s good for us because these are just opportunities to grow and get better and find ways to get better. He had a great night. Phenomenal night. And it makes sense that they’re going to send multiple bodies at you, just gotta keep executing. We had some decent looks, but your fourth quarter has to be your best quarter as far as execution goes.”
For the Bucks though, the problems were not just on the offensive end. Defensively, they did not have an answer for the Pacers’ All-Star point guard Tyrese Haliburton, who tallied 29 points (on 10-of-17 shooting), six rebounds and 10 assists.
The Bucks have not been a strong defensive team all season and while they were able to slow the Pacers down in the second quarter with a zone, the Pacers eventually figured that out and the Bucks needed to try a man-to-man defense.
The Bucks tried to keep Jae Crowder on Haliburton to close the game, but the pick-and-roll combo of Haliburton and Myles Turner proved to be a bit much for Crowder and Brook Lopez. So the Bucks eventually tried to switch every on-ball screen with all five players on the court. That ultimately left Lopez on Haliburton, which the Bucks tried to disrupt with late help defenders.
But the Pacers thwarted those efforts with a smart cut and a strong finish from Benedict Mathurin (26 points, 11 rebounds).
A few possessions later, when Haliburton got Cam Payne to switch onto him, he just worked against the Bucks’ point guard in isolation and hit a pull-up 3 to give the Pacers a one-point lead.
“Late in games, that’s what it’s going to come down to — getting stops. Tonight, we couldn’t,” Middleton said after putting up 19 points, two rebounds and four assists in 20 minutes. “So it’s just figuring out how we can keep the ball in front, how can we keep the whole team out of rotations, which they did a great job of the majority of the game.
“And like I’ve said, we’re going to get there. We’re going to watch this, figure out how to get better, learn how to clean things up on that side of the ball because it’s going to make our offensive end so much better.”
While the Bucks have been one of the league’s best teams for the last five years, the team has almost always struggled to find enough capable defenders on the wing.
Former starting point guard Jrue Holiday helped mask some of those concerns, but now that he is gone the Bucks are still trying to figure out which players can capably fill the role. Crowder has put together a strong start to the season, but the Bucks are going to need to find more help on the wing defensively to defend the league’s best guards and wings. The team’s answer to that problem might be on the bench in the form of their young wings, MarJon Beauchamp and Andre Jackson Jr., but neither have been trusted to close out games quite yet.
On Thursday, the Bucks had too many defensive targets on the floor, which meant they needed to be able to outscore the Pacers. Their late game execution let them down as the Pacers turned up the pressure on Antetokounmpo.
While Antetokounmpo has coordinated the offense as the Bucks finish off an opponent many times, the Bucks’ superstar just couldn’t manage to get on the same page as his teammates as he tried to fight through tired legs.
Lopez cut to the right place on the floor on this possession and Antetokounmpo delivered the ball, but Lopez momentarily thinking the pass might have been meant for Middleton on the backside turned the pass into a turnover out of bounds.
Then, after Lopez forced a turnover on a switch against Bruce Brown on the defensive end, Antetokounmpo opted to look for a teammate instead of trying to finish in the lane and committed another turnover.
Throughout the first eight games of the season, the Bucks have played a number of close games and their new starting point guard has been the one with the ball in his hands late to seal victories. That is what Lillard was brought to Milwaukee to do and he has done the job well. Without Lillard on Thursday, the Bucks came up short and lost a winnable game with late game turnovers and an inability to get stops defensively.
Lillard should be around throughout the season to help with the offense, but their late game defense will continue to be a problem until the Bucks arrive at better answers on the wing.
(Photo of Giannis Antetokounmpo: AJ Mast / NBAE via Getty Images)