2024 Playoffs: East First Round | Bucks (3) vs. Pacers (6)

NBA Playoffs: What to expect in Bucks-Pacers series

Giannis Antetokounmpo's health looms over a playoffs matchup in which young Indiana seemed very comfortable in the regular season.

Indiana’s top-notch offense runs into Milwaukee’s veteran star power.

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Five months ago, the Milwaukee Bucks and Indiana Pacers fought over which team got to keep the game ball after Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 64 points and Oscar Tshiebwe scored four. Now, they’ll fight for a spot in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. It’s the first playoff meeting between the two Central Division rivals in 24 years, and it features two of the league’s top six offenses.

The Pacers won the regular season series, 4-1, with one of those wins coming in Las Vegas (during the In-Season Tournament semifinals) and the last of those five meetings having come (Jan. 3) before Indiana acquired Pascal Siakam. These two teams haven’t met since one team made a major trade and the other made a coaching change.

Series schedule

Here’s how to watch the Bucks vs. Pacers series:

All times Eastern Standard Time

  • Game 1: Pacers vs. Bucks; Sunday, April 21 (7 p.m., TNT)
  • Game 2: Pacers vs. Bucks; Tuesday, April 23 (8:30 p.m., NBA TV)
  • Game 3: Bucks vs. Pacers; Friday, April 26 (5:30 p.m., ESPN)
  • Game 4: Bucks vs. Pacers; Sunday, April 28 (7 p.m., TNT)
  • Game 5: Pacers vs. Bucks; Tuesday, April 30 (TBD, TBD)*
  • Game 6: Bucks vs. Pacers; Thursday, May 2 (TBD, TBD)*
  • Game 7: Pacers vs. Bucks; Saturday, May 4 (TBD, TNT)*

* = If necessary

Top storyline

Antetokounmpo’s health. The Bucks’ MVP candidate suffered a left calf strain in Game No. 79 and then missed the last three. It’s good news the injury wasn’t worse, but it’s being reported that he won’t be ready for Game 1 on Sunday.

The Bucks went 4-5 without Antetokounmpo this season, and they were outscored by 23.2 points per 100 possessions (scoring less than a point per possession) in 172 total minutes with Damian Lillard, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez on the floor without the two-time Kia MVP.

In 53 minutes with Antetokounmpo off the floor against the Pacers this season, the Bucks were outscored by 39 points. His ability to play (and play big minutes) in this series is critical.

Keep your eyes on

Guard hunting. Both of these teams are much better on offense than on defense. And both of them have All-Star point guards that can be attacked on the defensive end of the floor.

The Bucks will try to make Tyrese Haliburton work and if Antetokounmpo is healthy, that work will be difficult. Milwaukee likes to have its guards set screens for Antetokounmpo. The guard who will set the most screens is likely to be the one being guarded by Haliburton, whose screen defense has been an issue at times this season.

With the Bucks now starting Patrick Beverley instead of Malik Beasley, they have a good defender to assign to Haliburton on the other end of the floor. The Pacers don’t set a lot of guard-guard screens, but they could have some success in putting Beasley and/or Lillard in actions involving either Haliburton or Pascal Siakam.

1 more thing to watch for each team

For Milwaukee: Transition defense. The Bucks saw defensive improvement as the season went on, partially because they were better in transition, allowing 12.2 fast break points per game after the All-Star break, down from 14.3 before the break. Of course, it’s been a while since they faced the team that ranked fourth in fast break points per game. The Pacers were 23-4 when they registered at least 20 fast break points.

For Indiana: Bench play. After returning from an injury absence in which he missed 10 of 11 games, Tyrese Haliburton had an effective field goal percentage of just 54.0% (shooting 32.4% from 3-point range), down from 59.5% (40.0% from 3) prior. But the Pacers still ranked second offensively (119.6 points scored per 100 possessions) over those last 35 games, and they were most efficient (122.8 scored per 100) over that stretch with T.J. McConnell on the floor.

The Pacers’ starting lineup outscored opponents by 6.4 points per 100 possessions, a good mark but not a great one. It ranked 16th among 37 lineups that played at least 200 minutes and was more than doubled by the marks of each of the Bucks’ four most-used lineups (plus 15.1 per 100 or better). The Pacers had the league’s second-ranked bench after the All-Star break and if they’re going to have a chance in this series, they’ll probably need to win the minutes with reserves on the floor.

1 key number to know

56% – The Pacers allowed their opponents to take 56% of their shots in the paint. That was the league’s highest opponent rate by a huge margin. Indiana limited opponent 3-point attempts, but gave up a lot of shots near the basket, a strategy that didn’t work out so well given that they finished 24th in defensive efficiency. The good news is that they got better at defending shots in the paint (55.4%), as they ranked 16th defensively over the last five weeks than they were prior (59.3%).

Antetokounmpo’s 20.3 points in the paint per game led the league, but as a team, the Bucks ranked 28th in the percentage of their shots (43%) that came in the paint. That rate was much higher (52%) against the Pacers, but the Bucks are a team that depends a lot on 3-point shooting and connected on just 31.7% of their attempts from beyond the arc over the five regular-season meetings.

The pick

Pacers in six. If Antetokounmpo were healthy, if it was a sure thing he’d be ready for Game 2 or 3, or if the Bucks were facing a lesser opponent, they might still be favored here. But with only “hope” that he could return at some point in this series, it’s hard to pick a team that hasn’t been very good with their best player off the floor.

The Pacers have played well against good teams all season, finishing with the second-best record (15-11) in games played between the top eight in the East. They have a potent offense, an improved defense and a knowledge that they can beat this particular opponent.

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on X. 

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