Tyrese Haliburton, Damian Lillard
(NBAE/Getty Images)

Pacers, Bucks Set to Renew Rivalry with New Faces on Both Sides

On Sunday night in Milwaukee, the Pacers and Bucks will tip off a best-of-seven playoff series. The two Central Division rivals haven't met in the postseason since 2000, but they are very familiar from their matchups this season. Well, sort of.

Thanks to an additional meeting in Las Vegas for the In-Season Tournament Semifinals, the Pacers and Bucks played five times in the regular season, their most meetings in a single season over 30 years.

But because of the quirks of NBA scheduling, all of those games took place in the first half of the season. The two teams met on Nov. 9 at Gainbridge Fieldhouse, then played four more times in less than a month: Dec. 7 in Vegas, Dec. 13 and Jan. 1 in Milwaukee, and Jan. 3 in Indianapolis. The Pacers went 4-1 in those games, only dropping the first meeting in Milwaukee.

But both teams underwent major changes after that point. On Jan. 17, the Pacers traded for two-time All-Star Pascal Siakam. On Jan. 23, the Bucks fired first-year head coach Adrian Griffin despite a 30-13 record. Three days later, they hired Doc Rivers as their new coach.

After the twists and turns of the final three months of the season, the final standings saw the Bucks in third place in the Eastern Conference at 49-33 and the Pacers in sixth at 47-35.

As the two teams have prepared for their playoff series this week, they've all faced the same inevitable question. How much value do those five earlier games provide?

"We’re going to take what we learned from some of those games and hopefully use some of that to help us in this series moving forward," Pacers forward Aaron Nesmith said.

"A lot has changed," said Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle, before adding, "We’re looking at all that stuff because you look at everything."

All-Star point guard Tyrese Haliburton noted that the Bucks have made some stylistic changes under Rivers, although those five earlier meetings at least provide the Blue & Gold with some familiarity with Milwaukee's personnel. But Haliburton doesn't put much stock in those games beyond that.

"Honestly, those five games don’t matter," he said. "The 82 games that we’ve played don’t really matter at this point. It’s a really a fresh start and we’ve just got to approach it in that way."

The Pacers are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2020. Only center Myles Turner, point guard T.J. McConnell, and sharpshooting wing Doug McDermott remain from that team. Siakam brings plenty of playoff experience, having won a championship with the Raptors in 2019. Some players like Nesmith and big man Jalen Smith were parts of other teams in Boston and Phoenix that went on runs to the Finals, but they weren't playing a major role on those teams.

For others, most notably Haliburton as well as second-year guard Andrew Nembhard and rookie wing Ben Sheppard, this is their first taste of the playoffs.

"There’s only so much I can tell them," Turner said when asked if he'd had any discussions about the playoffs with his younger teammates. "There’s a lot of emotions they’ve got to experience on their own.

"What I do tell them is that it’s nothing like anything you’ve ever been a part of before. As far as the emotions, as far as the way the game is officiated, the way the game feels. Everything is different."

For Haliburton especially, Sunday will be a meaningful moment. The 6-5 guard has taken the league by storm over the past two years, making his first two All-Star teams, earning national acclaim for his performance in the In-Season Tournament, and leading the NBA in assists this season. On Sunday, he will finally play his first playoff game in his home state, just an hour-and-a-half away from Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

"I’m excited," Haliburton said. "I’m really thankful to be here. Usually at this point, I’m getting my exit meetings and talking to you guys at a press conference (before) getting ready for my vacation.

"I’m just excited to keep playing basketball. My plan is to keep playing for the next couple months."

The Pacers are entering the playoffs confident. They won nine of their last 13 games to close the regular season and secure a top-six seed. They finished the season with one of the most potent offenses in NBA history, leading the league in both points and assists while becoming the first team ever to amass over 10,000 points and 2,500 assists in a single season.

Haliburton orchestrates the show. Siakam has had half a season to integrate himself into the offense, averaging 21.3 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 3.7 assists over 41 games with Blue & Gold. Turner has averaged 18.5 points while shooting 60.6 percent from the field and 44.8 percent from 3-point range this month. McConnell has been on a tear coming off the bench, averaging 14.2 points on 57.7 percent shooting and 5.3 assists since last month.

The Bucks enter the postseason with a lot more question marks. With a few weeks left in the season, they seemed like locks to be the second seed in the East, but dropped eight of their final 11 regular season contests.

More worrisome for Milwaukee, star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo suffered a strained left calf on April 9 against Boston. The two-time MVP — who finished second in the league in scoring (30.4 points per game), sixth in rebounding (11.5), and 14th in assists (6.5) — sat out the Bucks' final three regular season games and his status for Game 1 is in doubt.

Beyond Antetokounmpo, the Bucks still have other players with playoff experience, most notably All-Star guard Damian Lillard (who is dealing with groin and abductor issues himself that kept him from practicing on Tuesday and Wednesday), forward Khris Middleton, and center Brook Lopez.

The Bucks also have some new faces this time around. They acquired veteran guard Patrick Beverley from Philadelphia at the trade deadline. Forward Jae Crowder missed four of the five meetings with Indiana earlier this season, but he's back in the rotation. Rivers has implemented different philosophies than Griffin, particularly on the defensive end, where he keeps Lopez closer to the rim.

On the whole, the Bucks have more playoff experience than the Pacers. Antetokounmpo, Middleton, and Lopez led Milwaukee to an NBA title in 2021, while Lillard has played in 61 career playoff games during his time in Portland.

"They’re a great veteran team," Carlisle said. "They’ve got the experience, they’ve got the championship. We have great respect for all their guys.

"I know there’s a lot of talk about what’s going to happen with Giannis. We’ve got to be prepared for all scenarios. It’ll be great competition. Fiserv is a great place to play, the fans in Milwaukee are among the best. It’s an opportunity that’s going to be very difficult, but we’re looking forward to it."

Much of the talk this week at the Pacers' media availabilities has centered around "focusing on the process" and "blocking out external noise." Even though the Pacers won four of five against the Bucks this season, they aren't entering this series overconfident and they certainly aren't going to give their opponents any bulletin board material.

That doesn't mean that they are lacking in confidence, however. This may be the first playoff appearance for this collective group, but the Blue & Gold fully believe they have everything needed to mount a deep playoff run.

Over the last several weeks of the regular season, Siakam kept uttering different variations of the same phrase, noting that the goal was to be playing their best basketball not just in April, but in April, May, and June.

It's a sentiment that Haliburton echoed this week when discussing Indiana's aspirations.

“We’re not just satisfied being here," Haliburton said. "We want to take a lot more than that."

The journey begins in earnest on Sunday. If the Pacers have their way, it's going to be a long ride.