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Bucks facing elimination after up-and-down Game 4 against Pacers

Written by on April 29, 2024

INDIANAPOLIS — Trailing by three points to start the second half, the Milwaukee Bucks put themselves in position to steal Game 4 on Sunday night.

Khris Middleton had a mismatch on the right wing with Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner picking him up in transition early in the third quarter. Using the threat of his jumper to draw Turner out, Middleton drove past the big man on the baseline and tried an up-and-under, left-handed lay-in.

He missed, but the attention he drew from the help defenders left Brook Lopez all alone for the offensive rebound and putback to bring the Bucks within just one point. Turner, however, landed on the back of the bottom portion of Middleton’s left leg, and the collision left Middleton clutching at his left ankle. Patrick Beverley tried to take a foul as Pacers guard Andrew Nembhard brought the ball across half court, but officials let the play continue, and Tyrese Haliburton nailed a corner 3.

Middleton rolled around before eventually getting up, limping down the court and then to the locker room as Bucks coach Doc Rivers called a timeout following Haliburton’s 3. By the time the timeout was over, Middleton was back. Despite entering the game with a sprained right ankle, on which he played 41 minutes in Game 3, and then picking up an injury on his other ankle, Middleton gutted out 40 minutes on Sunday.

But the Bucks would never get closer in the second half than they did after Lopez’s putback as the Pacers grabbed a 126-113 victory in Game 4 to take a 3-1 lead in the teams’ first-round series. Middleton only managed 25 points on 8-of-22 shooting following his 42-point performance in Game 3, but the 12-year veteran’s will to stay on the floor encapsulated the Bucks’ gritty, short-handed effort Sunday.

“Our guys were playing their hearts out. They really were,” Rivers said after the game. “I loved that our team, no matter what anyone thought, they believed we could win this game, and it shows a lot about this basketball team.

“And what I loved about it most was they were disappointed that they didn’t win the game. This is a great group to coach, I’m telling you. I know we have a lot of stuff going on, just clutter, injuries, but man, I’m loving this team every second that I’m with them. And today is another example of that.”

While Rivers was proud of his team’s effort, the Bucks still lost, and part of the reason for the loss was the team’s poor discipline, a problem that has popped up throughout this season.

That lack of discipline starts with Bobby Portis, who was ejected seven minutes into Sunday’s game because of an altercation with Nembhard.

Nembhard pulled Portis’ arm, but officials decided that Portis’ push and open-handed strike counted as two separate hostile acts and warranted an ejection.

“The emotions got the best of him,” said Middleton, who also had 10 rebounds and five assists. “I thought, for the most part of the year, he’s done a great job flirting with that line and not crossing over it. Tonight, it just crossed over at the worst time for us.”

Portis has often been an emotional leader for the Bucks over his four seasons in Milwaukee, but with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard injured, an ejection was a mistake the Bucks simply could not afford.

“It was a tough break for us, there’s no doubt about it,” Rivers said. “It doesn’t matter how long you’re in the league, you can still learn. All of us can. I thought it would probably be a lesson for Bobby. All of us. For all our young guys. Playoff games are high emotion. They really are. So that happened, and you can’t get it back once it happened.”

And while the altercation turned out to be the biggest undisciplined mistake on Sunday, it was far from the only one the Bucks made.

All series long, the Bucks have talked about the importance of getting back in transition against the Pacers. Yet, on consecutive plays at the end of the first quarter, the Bucks let Obi Toppin sneak behind their defense for an easy bucket.

The Bucks scored immediately following each of his buckets, limiting the damage, but that just makes the transition defense even worse. The Pacers should never score a transition bucket after a make, and they did it on consecutive plays of a playoff game.

In the second half, the Pacers’ first three buckets were triples from Haliburton, who had his best 3-point shooting night of the series, knocking down 5-of-12 from behind the 3-point line. But those three looks were all far too easy.

Haliburton knocked down a 3 on the aforementioned possession following Middleton’s injury. After a missed hook shot on the baseline by Lopez, who led the Bucks in scoring with 27 points and nine rebounds, the Bucks didn’t get back in transition fast enough, and Haliburton got Andre Jackson Jr. to fly past him on a pump fake and hit an open 3. On the next possession, the Bucks’ transition defense was even worse, and Haliburton dribbled right down the floor for an open 3.

The Bucks stuck around for the final two quarters but never managed to get closer than five points. The Pacers comfortably took Game 4 to put the Bucks on the brink of elimination on Tuesday in Milwaukee.

“Just one game at a time,” Rivers said. “Here’s the deal. We have two games left at home, they have one game left at home. That’s how you can look at it. So, the first thing is, we have to win the first game at home. Then we can talk about the rest after that.”

On Saturday, Rivers told reporters that Antetokounmpo would be going through a hard workout Sunday morning. Before Game 4, Rivers gave reporters his most positive update on Antetokounmpo of the postseason.

“It went well,” Rivers said. “He moved. He shot. He’s running now with no resistance, so those are all very good signs.”

When asked if he was now optimistic that Antetokounmpo would play in the series, Rivers said “there’s a chance for him to play” in the first round. Rivers’ update on Lillard was less positive, saying the Bucks’ point guard was able to do “nothing” Sunday and only received treatment.

With the status of their superstar duo still up in the air, the Bucks will have to press forward without them and try to find a way to win Game 5 to keep their season alive.

“Gotta try to protect home court for one, and then the motivation is to try to get back here,” Middleton said from the bowels of Gainbridge Fieldhouse. “I’ve been in this situation a couple times where we’ve been able to force another game. And I’ve been on the other side when we haven’t.

“It could go either way, but we’re gonna have to play as hard as we can, we have to execute our game plan, we have to keep guys in check, and even though we’ve been down before (and) we’re down two guys now, we still got all the confidence in the world that we can get back here. I think that’s the motivation.”

Even with Antetokounmpo on the sidelines, the Bucks have been in all four games of this series.

Following the Portis ejection, they played roughly 23 of the 29 minutes of non-garbage time basketball using lineups that had never seen a second of regular-season action together. The Pacers hit 12 of their first 22 3-point attempts, and the Bucks were still only down three points at halftime.

If the Bucks are short-handed again on Tuesday, it will be difficult for them to pull out a win, but far from impossible, especially if they play with greater discipline.

(Photo of Khris Middleton: Nathaniel S. Butler / NBAE via Getty Images)

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