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Milwaukee vs. Indiana: Back on the Playoff Border Again!

Hello, 8th seed, my old friend...

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Indiana Pacers Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

In yet another game against an opponent playing for playoff positioning, the Milwaukee Bucks couldn’t get it done. Clearly playing with fatigue from yesterday’s thriller over Philly, the Bucks dropped a crucial Central Division matchup (what, divisions matter, technically!) to the Indiana Pacers, 92-89.

With this loss, the Bucks fall to 34-30 and further behind in the tiebreaking equations of the Eastern Conference playoff octet. Sitting even with the Miami Heat (after their victory over Phoenix) record-wise but 0-3 in their head-to-head, the Bucks are now in the all-too-familiar 8th seed, ahead of the Detroit Pistons (who are 5 games out of the playoffs themselves).

As the first quarter mercifully wound down to a close, the Bucks defense gave up several easy interior looks and the team entered the second period down 20-17, buoyed by a pair of free throws from Khris Middleton with 0.4 seconds remaining. The teams traded buckets until the Bucks put together enough of a run to tie the game at 26-26 off of a corner three from Jason Terry (pointedly made in the grill of Lance Stephenson). A few minutes later, Giannis Antetokounmpo put on the spin cycle to force Indiana to take a timeout. Some people still aren’t used to Giannis bending the laws of physics:

Neither team was particularly hot, but the Bucks stayed slightly warmer and worked their way to a 46-44 advantage at halftime. Both teams cooled off during halftime, and the Bucks opened the third quarter looking particularly sleepy as they immediately gave up four straight points before Giannis tapped in a John Henson miss to end the “run.” Then the defense really got bad for Milwaukee, and they ended up trailing 57-50 before Joe Prunty ordered a timeout, and the deficit quickly ballooned to 65-50 right after, which led to another timeout!

Thankfully, Jabari Parker heated up at an opportune time, coming in off the bench and quickly scoring 5 consecutive points to force a Pacer timeout. This woke up the Bucks, who enjoyed another pair of buckets from Jabari and a pair of jumpers from JET and Eric Bledsoe, and Milwaukee closed out the third down only 73-69 (which would have been even closer, if not for a deeeeeeep three from Lance Stephenson).

As it does with this Bucks team, hope springs eternal...until Parker forgets how to cover a pick and roll or Bledsoe overcommits while gambling for a steal, or Giannis gets swallowed up by a screen and the defense gives up an open three. The fourth quarter started with all of these things, as the Pacers sped ahead to an 81-73 advantage.

But if you thought they were out...the Bucks pulled you back in, as Bledsoe scored five straight points (two layups and an and-one) to cut down the lead to six, before the Bucks gave up a questionable and-one to Bojan Bogdanovic. A gyro-step from Giannis cut the lead to five, but a post-timeout three from Thaddeus Young immediately stretched the Pacer lead back to eight.

Fouls and turnovers kept getting in the way of a Bucks comeback, but as the seconds ticked away the Pacers continued not running away with the game when given the opportunity. After some back and forth, a Middleton-Giannis alley oop cut the lead to two measly points, and Giannis split a pair of free throws to set things at 90-89 (in favor of Indiana) with 1:04 left.

The excitement didn’t stop there, as Milwaukee clamped down and didn’t allow any scoring from Indiana, even coming up with a fast break steal with 6.8 seconds remaining. The ball was poked out of bounds and the call was too close, resulting in a tense jump-ball situation. The Bucks were in a small-ball formation, and Eric Bledsoe lost position to the much-taller Bojan Bogdanovic, who drew the required foul and made both free throws to create a 92-89 cushion for Indiana. Giannis came up woefully short on a three to tie the game, and that was that.

Three Observations

A dialed-in Jabari Parker is a sight to behold. Parker may not be all the way back yet, but he came ready to score today. He moved with purpose and created more space than you or I would know what to do with on his step-back dribble into his feathery-soft midrange jumper. On the other hand...

A clueless Jabari Parker is a sight to avoid. On the defensive end, Parker continues to be a mess. There were a number of possessions where he simply...stopped moving, failing to defend anything other than the space he found himself standing in. The Pacers could have attacked him more, but they found significant success targeting the clearly gassed (and likely disinterested) John Henson in the pick and roll.

What we have here is a failure to capitalize. Milwaukee’s last-ditch effort to force overtime was an unfortunate three-pointer from Giannis (which is a suboptimal result), but there were several points over the minute that preceded this play that could’ve made his heroic heave unnecessary. To wit, Eric Bledsoe’s shot getting swatted by Victor Oladipo could’ve been distributed to someone else, and Giannis could have made his second free throw. Giannis could have also worked the ball around to specifically avoid taking a contested 18-footer (although he did it for the two-for-one opportunity, which is forgivable), and Khris Middleton might have pulled back on his steal to get the ball to someone who wasn’t having a terrible night (which I realize leaves slim pickings for the Bucks). All in all, the Bucks worked their tails off to get back into this game, but couldn’t execute on just one more play to find their way into a victory.

Bonus Bucks Bits

  • We got our first taste of new addition Shabazz Muhammad, who is a regular human being who plays basketball and not the walking, talking, all-consuming singularity some fans feared the Bucks were signing. He was somehow +8 in 7 minutes and only attempted one shot, a midrange turnaround jumper that missed long.
  • Filling in for the roughed-up Tyler Zeller, Thon Maker reassumed his customary backup center spot, and continued maintaining his unique brand of hands-free offense.
  • Maybe it’s me, but John Henson looks disinterested too often on the court. I mean, more than usual. He committed fouls without actually committing to them, he boxed out less than usual, and was as careless with the ball on offense as he is with tracking his Chipotle order history. There was a point late in the fourth where Lance Stephenson intentionally tripped Henson in transition, which is a weak move and immediately lit a fire in Captain Hook’s eyes.
  • Tony Snell had been in a prolonged shooting slump for as long as we can remember, and he had missed some time recently with a leg bruise. Tonight, especially in the first half, we saw more of what we like to see from Snell.
  • Khris Middleton was questionable with knee soreness before the game, and he clearly seemed uncomfortable during his 35 minutes on the court, “leading” the team with -23 and making a single shot from the field.
  • Jason Terry may or may not have tried to out-Lance Lance:
  • Giannis was an absolute menace on the boards in the second half, routinely skying well above any of his Pacers counterparts when the ball was in the air. His commitment to cleaning the glass is what enabled Milwaukee to go to its small-ball lineup late in the game.
  • Eric Bledsoe took 22 shots. Giannis was second place on the team in attempts with 16, and Jabari managed to put up 10 shots of his own. This distribution ought to be shuffled around some, methinks, especially since Bledsoe went 2-10 from deep and only earned 4 free throws in 35 minutes.
  • Rebounding has never been the Bucks’ cup of tea, but they were especially bad when Jabari and Thon shared the floor, which did not escape the eye of viewers like Nate Duncan:
  • Joe Prunty tried out a Bledsoe / Terry / Middleton / Parker / Antetokounmpo lineup with 3 minutes left in the fourth quarter, and the promptly committed a shot clock violation, forced a traveling call against Indiana, and scored on a Jason Terry midrange pull up. You know, exactly how you drew things up.
  • The Bucks next contest is against the league-best Houston Rockets, so hang onto your butts for that one. But (pun absolutely intended), their following four games are against a quartet of tankers: New York, Memphis, Orlando, and Atlanta. If the Bucks can find a way to take care of business against those teams and carry a (hypothetical) 38-31 record into their March 19 visit to Cleveland, Milwaukee will at least be able to approach the final twelve games of the year with a clear path to the postseason (and hopefully a higher seed).