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2023-24 Eastern Conference First Round Preview: Indiana Pacers vs. Milwaukee Bucks

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Can the Bucks get the bad taste out of their mouths against the Pacers? (Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports)

2023-24 Eastern Conference First Round Preview: Indiana Pacers vs. Milwaukee Bucks

After five exciting regular-season meetings between the two squads, the Indiana Pacers will square off with the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the 2023-24 NBA Playoffs. The Pacers took four of the five meetings, including an exciting 128-119 matchup in the In-Season Tournament. Will history repeat itself, or will the Giannis Antetokounmpo, Damian Lillard-led Bucks bounce back after last year’s disaster? Let’s preview!

What to know about the Indiana Pacers:

Starters:

Key Reserves:

The Indiana Pacers took a leap in the second full season with All-Star point guard Tyrese Haliburton, flipping their 35-47 trek in 2022-24 to 47-35 this season. 

Indiana traded Buddy Hield and Bruce Brown ahead of the deadline, but ultimately acquired Pascal Siakam (in a package involving Brown) and experienced a breakout season from Aaron Nesmith and Obi Toppin, who Indiana traded pennies on the dollar for in the offseason.

The Pacers will, unfortunately, be without Bennedict Mathurin for the remainder of the season with a torn labrum, but T.J. McConnell, Andrew Nembhard and rookie Ben Sheppard have filled in during his absence. 

Nevertheless, the high-octane Pacers finished with the second-most potent offense–trailing only the Boston Celtics–despite owning the seventh-worst defense. Tyrese Haliburton flashed for 20.1 points, 10.9 assists and 1.2 steals on 47.7 percent shootings and 36.4 percent from 3-point range. Siakam averaged 21.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.7 assists while Myles Turner averaged 17.1 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per contest in 77 games.

What to know about the Milwaukee Bucks:

Starters (until Antetokounmpo is healthy):

Key Reserves:

After getting bounced in five games by the No. 8 Miami Heat, the Bucks swung for the fences by trading for Damian Lillard—who ironically wanted Miami—late into the offseason.

The Bucks also fired head coach Mike Budenholzer and hired head coach Adrian Griffin. It wasn’t a smooth transition, as the Bucks–playing a hyper-aggressive defensive scheme–to a bottom-third unit, despite possessing a top-flight offense led by Lillard and superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo

But turmoil festered in the organization before the season even started. Bucks assistant Terry Stotts, Lillard’s head coach in Portland for nine years, left four months after he was brought in due to a tenuous relationship with Griffin. The Bucks’ new head coach was eventually let go after starting 31-13, with Doc Rivers getting hired midseason to man the ship.

The Bucks went 17-19 in Rivers’ minute sample, closing the regular season losing eight of their last 11 games. Milwaukee’s defense was better with Rivers, but still finished in the bottom-half of defensive rating out of the All-Star with a midline offense. Milwaukee’s also dealing with injuries to both Lillard and Antetokounmpo; Lillard is dealing with an abductor injury, while Antetokounmpo will miss the start of the series with a calf injury.

Question(s)?

How does Milwaukee, without Antetokounmpo, deal with Indiana’s athleticism?

One of the Bucks’ biggest fatal flaws is their athleticism–or lack thereof. Without Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee will need to rely on Lillard, Khris Middleton, Malik Beasley, Jae Crowder and Brook Lopez, among others. They have size, but not very much functional athleticism to counter Indiana, who had Haliburton, Nesmith and Toppin, among others. Typically, in the postseason, teams get these games more in the mud, but against Indiana’s fast-paced attack, the Bucks’ ability to contain the Pacers may be the biggest deciding factor in determining the series outcome.

Prediction: Pacers in 6

***

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