With a chance to cement their status in the In-Season Tournament Finals, the Milwaukee Bucks met the Indiana Pacers in Las Vegas on Thursday.
The hype surrounding the first-ever In-Season Tournament has grown with each passing day, so one anticipated that both of these teams would be fired up. Unfortunately, the energy was fully tipped in Indiana's direction, as the youthful Pacers had a little extra pep in their step from the game's opening moments, and they rode that for much of the contest while the Bucks got off to another slow start.
After trailing by 12 at the half, the Bucks did make a run in the second half and actually made things watchable as they traded blows with the Pacers until the very end. However, despite their best effort, they simply could not overcome Indiana, mainly a tremendous performance from Tyrese Haliburton, who led the Pacers to a 128-119 victory.
While the Pacers deserve credit for the victory, the Bucks certainly did not do themselves any favors with some sluggish play throughout this one.
Self-inflicted issues, scorching Pacers doom Bucks in In-Season Tournament loss
Plenty of Milwaukee's worst tendencies were on display during this matchup. They were horrendous at getting back in transition, no one could keep anyone in front of them defensively, several players turned the pass over in head-scratching fashion, the bench gave the Bucks essentially nothing, and the group just looked discombobulated as a whole.
Despite all of this, the Bucks still had a chance to win the game, but for some reason, they went away from their two best players in the clutch. Damian Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo combined for a measly three shot attempts in the final five minutes. That can't happen. When the game is on the line, these two, especially a player with a reputation like Lillard, need to be featured more on offense.
It stings even more because Antetokounmpo had a near masterclass, tallying 37 points while hitting 68.4 percent of his shots from the floor while tallying 10 rebounds, two assists, and two blocks. Lillard had a tough start to the game, but after a 16-point third quarter, the Bucks stopped going to him, and that cannot happen when he's in such a nice groove on offense.
As previously mentioned, it also didn't help that Milwaukee's bench production was also nonexistent in this one. The second unit combined to score 13 points on 6-of-18 shooting. Above all else, there has been plenty of chatter about Bobby Portis lately as his struggles rage on. The Bucks need their Sixth Man of the Year candidate to find his stride and help turn this bench brigade around.
Portis is not solely to blame, as MarJon Beauchamp also couldn't do much, and Cameron Payne was uncharacteristically cold. Since Jae Crowder and Pat Connaughton both went down, this group has simply failed to embrace the cliched "next man up" mentality. That has to change, or changes may need to be made personnel-wise or in terms of who is getting legitimate minutes.
Credit must go to Tyrese Haliburton as well, who was phenomenal and erased any answe the Bucks thought they had for him all night. He finished with 27 points, including several late, while also dishing out 15 assists with no turnovers. That's just insane. Myles Turner provided plenty of assistance as well by tallying 26 points, 10 rebounds, and three blocked shots.
Ultimately, losing stings, especially on a big stage, but all the Bucks can do is learn from the loss and use it as fuel the next time they suit up.