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Bucks vs. Pacers Preview: Road trip makes pitstop in Indy vs. Paul George and Co.

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James Brosher-USA TODAY Sports

The new year can't come soon enough for the disappointing Milwaukee Bucks, but they'll face one more difficult test before they can put 2015 behind them.

Losers of three straight, the Bucks roll into Indianapolis on New Year's Eve for an early evening matchup with the much-improved Paul George and the Pacers, the third game in a four-game road trip that will see them travel to Minnesota on Saturday before returning home to take on the Spurs on Monday. Whatever happens, it likely can't get worse than the Bucks' last trip to Indy, right?

Bucks Update

Big nights from Khris Middleton (36 pts), Giannis Antetokounmpo (27 pts/10 rebs) and Michael Carter-Williams (19 pts/9 rebs/9 ast) went for naught Tuesday night in Oklahoma City, the Bucks' third straight loss overall and 13th road loss in their last 14 attempts. While they hardly shut down Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Bucks lost in large part due to their inability to contain OKC's bench, which got 23 points on 12 shots from Enes Kanter and 16 points on just six shots from Cameron Payne.

The 131-123 loss in OKC also represented Bucks season-highs in both points scored and allowed, in part because it was also the Bucks' fastest paced game of the season -- eclipsing the two Warriors games for that honor. Considering their competitiveness in those games, it's only reasonable to wonder if the Bucks should be playing fast more often; they rank just 23rd in pace and 12th in transition scoring (12.2 pts/game), down from 14.9 points per game last season (9th).

Still, playing fast and getting easy buckets is always much easier said than done. The most obvious issue this season has been defense, where the Bucks have forced far fewer turnovers and struggled to rebound the ball -- fundamental problems if you want to get easy baskets. While it's a good idea to encourage Giannis Antetokounmpo, Michael Carter-Williams and Jabari Parker to push the ball whenever possible, the Bucks are also understandably prone to burning a lot of clock given their personnel. Posting up Greg Monroe takes time, and it's also difficult to get shots up quickly when your players don't/can't shoot threes. Think about all the teams that play at a fast pace and score tons of points -- whether it's the old "Seven seconds or less" Suns or the current Warriors, most of them push the ball in large part to get open jumpers before defenses can get set. For the Bucks that part doesn't work as well.

The other issue is on the defensive end, where the Bucks simply don't seem to have the discipline to play fast without getting sloppy. Despite nominally playing at a slower pace -- likely in part because of forcing fewer turnovers and allowing possessions to be extended with offensive rebounds -- the Bucks have seen their transition scoring defense fall from 2nd last season (10.8 pts/game) to 20th this season (13.5). Can they push the ball themselves without allowing opponents to feast on the other end? They did it last season, but so far this year they've fallen flat.

Pacers Scouting Report

After a 16-9 start, Indiana has lost four of six including a tough 102-100 overtime decision in Chicago last night, dropping them to 6th in the East and just a game ahead of 9th seeded Charlotte. Still, the Pacers are also just 3.5 games behind Cleveland for the top spot in the East, and overall there's plenty to be happy about in Indy. After missing most of last season with a broken leg, Paul George is putting together an MVP-caliber season while Frank Vogel's defense is back to its elite best -- even with Roy Hibbert and David West plying their trade elsewhere.

Lavoy Allen started in place of the injured C.J. Miles (lower back) for the second straight game in Chicago, shifting George back to his more natural small forward spot while giving Indy a bigger look to start the game. Interestingly that might not be the worst thing in the world: while the Pacers outscore opponents by 3.4 points/100 possessions overall, their usual small-ball starting five has been 8.1 points/100 worse defensively than the team average and has been outscored by 5.1 points per 100 in net terms. Meanwhile, the Pacers' next three most-used lineups all feature Allen and all have been major positives on the season. Via NBA.com/stats:

Which lineups we see tonight remains an open question, as Miles, starting center Ian Mahinmi (sore knee) and backup big Jordan Hill (dental surgery) are all listed as questionable. Missing Mahinmi and Hill would be a major blow, as it would leave Allen and rookie Myles Turner (who just returned Monday from a broken hand) as the only viable big man options on Vogel's bench.

UPDATE: Miles is expected to return tonight while Mahinmi and Hill will be out.

Standings Watch

The Bucks enter the night in the all-too-familiar 13th spot in the East, 6.5 games adrift of the 8th seeded Celtics and 3.0 games behind the Knicks for 12th. More interestingly, the Bucks are tied with the Nuggets for 6th in the lotto standings, a half game up on 5th seeded Phoenix and one game up on the 4th seeded Pelicans. However, the Kings and Wolves are just a half game ahead of the Bucks at 12-20, adding a bit of extra intrigue to the Bucks' weekend trip to Minnesota.

15/16 NBA Season
Indiana pacers.vbc2aeb5
(18-13, 11-4 home)
vs.
(12-21, 3-15 road)
December 31, 2015
Bankers Life Fieldhouse | Indianapolis, IN
5:00 CT
FSN Wisconsin | 620 WTMJ
Probable Starters
George Hill PG Michael Carter-Williams
Monta Ellis SG Khris Middleton
C.J. Miles SF Giannis Antetokounmpo
Paul George PF Jabari Parker
Lavoy Allen C Greg Monroe
15/16 Advanced Stats
96.1 (18th) Pace 93.8 (23rd)
105.1 (14th) ORtg 102.9 (25th)
100.9 (4th) DRtg 109.3 (28th)