Even in a season defined by injuries, the Pacers stretched the meaning of the word "undermanned" to another level on Thursday night. Indiana opened the night without seven players, then lost its All-Star big man in the second half.
Against a Bucks team operating at full strength, the Pacers (33-37) simply didn't have quite enough firepower to keep up. Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 40 points as Milwaukee (45-25) prevailed at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, 142-133.
Eight players scored in double figures for Indiana in the loss. Justin Holiday led the way with a team-high 26 points, going 8-for-12 from 3-point range, and T.J. McConnell tallied 23 points, five rebounds, seven assists, and three steals.
But the Pacers were unable to ultimately keep up with the Bucks, who improved to 11-0 on the season against their four counterparts in the Central Division.
"When you play a team like that that has a lot of players that can score the ball and a team that plays almost like a machine, you have to play an almost perfect game to beat them," Holiday said. "We were missing guys, we had different guys in playing. I think we did a pretty good job with the guys that we had in there and how we played together and shot."
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The Pacers may have been shorthanded, but Holiday picked up the slack early. Playing in his 500th career game, Holiday hit his first four 3-point attempts over the opening 5:06, helping Indiana jump out to a 21-12 lead.
Milwaukee responded with a 16-6 spurt to take the lead for the first time on the night. The Pacers briefly moved back in front on a Doug McDermott 3-pointer, but a Jeff Teague three on the other end put the Bucks back in front and the visitors maintained a narrow lead for the remainder of the quarter. Holiday added two more threes before the quarter ended, however, to keep things close, as Indiana trailed just 39-38 after one.
Neither team led by more than five in a second quarter that featured eight lead changes and a tie. The Pacers suffered yet another blow when T.J. McConnell, their only healthy point guard, injured his left thumb with 3:28 remaining. McConnell smacked the stanchion under the basket with his right hand in frustration and headed to the locker room for evaluation.
McDermott (13 first-half points) and Domantas Sabonis (six points, four rebounds, and 13 assists) did their best to keep Indiana within striking distance, but Milwaukee took a 69-66 lead into the intermission.
McConnell returned for the second half with his thumb taped (x-rays were negative), but the Bucks owned the opening minutes of the third quarter. The visitors scored the first 10 points of the second half. Indiana hit just one of its first 10 shots in the third quarter, allowing Milwaukee to push its lead to 15.
The injury bug struck yet again when Sabonis tweaked his left quad entering a timeout with 5:31 remaining in the third quarter. He appeared willing to stay in the game, but was directed by the Pacers' staff to head for the bench, where he remained for the rest of the night.
The Bucks extended their lead to as many as 19 points in the frame before Indiana mounted a late charge. Back-to-back triples by Goga Bitadze and Kelan Martin trimmed the deficit to 11. A late dunk by Antetokounmpo gave Milwaukee a 109-96 lead entering the fourth quarter.
The Pacers continued to fight in the final frame, cutting the deficit to eight on three occasions in early in the period. Antetokounmpo scored nine of his 13 points in the quarter at the free throw line, however, as the Bucks prevented the Pacers from drawing any closer.
"I'm incredibly proud of the way we fought considering the circumstances," McConnell said. "We were like the Bad News Bears out there. Credit to everyone that was thrown in there tonight and fought til the end. (We) just didn't have enough."
McDermott and Oshae Brissett each scored 19 for Indiana, going 3-for-7 and 5-for-7 from beyond the arc, respectively. JaKarr Sampson scored 14, Kelan Martin added 12, while Bitadze added 10, six boards, and four assists.
Sabonis had 10 points, six rebounds, and 14 assists in 26 minutes before exiting early.
Antetokounmpo led the Bucks' offense, going 14-for-18 from the field and 11-for-16 from the free throw line while also tallying 15 rebounds and six assists.
Khris Middleton added 22 points, four boards, and six assists. Brook Lopez had 21 points and eight rebounds, while Jrue Holiday tallied 20 points and 14 assists.
The Pacers were without six players who sat out Tuesday's win over Philadelphia, but another key player joined them on the sidelines on Thursday. Star guard Caris LeVert was ruled out due to a bruised right knee that swelled up on Wednesday. Pacers head coach Nate Bjorkgren said that an MRI came back clean, but LeVert was not deemed fit to play against Milwaukee.
Charlotte also lost on Thursday, so the Pacers remain tied for eighth place in the Eastern Conference with two games remaining, although the Hornets own the head-to-head tiebreaker over Indiana.
The Blue & Gold close out the regular season by hosting the Lakers on Saturday afternoon and then traveling to Tampa to take on the Raptors on Sunday.
Inside the Numbers
Justin Holiday's eight 3-pointers were a new career high and one shy of the Pacers' franchise record, which is shared by Paul George, who made nine threes in an overtime game against New Orleans on Nov. 21, 2012, and T.J. Warren, who hit nine treys in his 53-point performance against Philadelphia in the NBA bubble on Aug. 1, 2020.
Indiana went 21-for-43 from 3-point range (48.8 percent), matching their franchise record of 21 made 3-pointers set in their win at Oklahoma City on May 1. The Pacers have made 20 or more threes in five games this season, a feat they had accomplished just once in franchise history entering the year.
McConnell's 23 points were a new career high. He had scored 19 points three times this season.
The Bucks outscored Indiana 78-50 in the paint on Thursday.
Antetokounmpo scored 40 points for the fifth time this season.
You Can Quote Me On That
"I thought that they gave it everything that they had, the guys that were out there on the floor. They did. They gave it everything they had, they played hard, they played together, and they didn't stop...I was proud of the effort." -Bjorkgren
"The ball's just going in, that's pretty much it. I'm shooting the same shots. Obviously today I'm playing more minutes...other than that, I'm just shooting my shots that I get in the game, trying to be aggressive, and trying to help win. There's been games in the past where I missed and I was like 1-for-10. (I was) still shooting the shots. Today they went in." -Holiday on his hot shooting night
"Milwaukee is a team that I feel like matchup-wise, they try to force me to score, and that's what I did. I let the game come to me and saw opportunities to shoot and I shot it. And when I could get my teammates the ball I did. Obviously, 19 shots were a career high for me, but I feel like not too many were forced, maybe one." -McConnell on his career night scoring
"I think we've probably had the most injuries out of anyone this year, probably completely decimated our team. But no one's feeling sorry for us. It's just that next-man-up mentality. Guys keeping stepping up and playing well and take advantage of opportunities so credit to the guys in this locker room." -McConnell on the injury bug continuing to bite the Pacers
"I am very comfortable in those positions. I get actually excited about it. I like challenges. It's another day for us to come out here and play basketball and guys that don't get a chance get a chance to play." -Holiday on playing shorthanded
Stat of the Night
Though he exited early, Sabonis put on a show in the first half, dishing out 13 assists from the center position. According to ESPN Stats & Info, that was tied for the most assists by a Pacers player in a half in the last 25 seasons. Jamaal Tinsley also had 13 in the second half of a game against Washington on Nov. 22, 2001.
- The Pacers remained without Malcolm Brogdon (hamstring), Aaron Holiday (toe), Jeremy Lamb (knee), Edmond Sumner (knee), and Myles Turner (toe) on Thursday. T.J. Warren (foot) is out for the season.
- The Bucks have won nine of the last 11 against Indiana and swept the season series with the Pacers for the first time since the 2009-10 campaign.
- Milwaukee closes the regular season in Chicago on Sunday. With a win there, the Bucks would be the first team in NBA history to go undefeated against its division in the regular season (though it is worth noting that teams are playing four fewer divisional games than usual this season).
The Pacers host LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers in their final regular season home game on Saturday, May 15 at 1:00 PM ET at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.