Pacers fail to close out veteran Bucks in Game 5: ‘We weren’t good enough’

MILWAUKEE — The second quarter was 90 seconds old when Indiana Pacers coach Rick Carlisle motioned for a timeout, but his exasperation, even with a four-point deficit, was telling.

Carlisle knew something was bubbling under the surface, an accident waiting to happen. A Pacers team that had set the NBA ablaze for months with their unselfish, free-flowing, fast-paced brand of basketball was struggling to generate good looks.

The veteran Milwaukee Bucks, with coach Doc Rivers, were dictating everything defensively, similar to what they did in Game 1.

“After a decent first quarter, things went very much downhill,” Carlisle said following Indiana’s 115-92 loss in Game 5. “I don’t think we were playing with the kind of intensity we needed to, even when we had the lead. We paid the price. I’ll take responsibility for that, I didn’t have these guys ready the way they needed to be ready to play this game.”

When Carlisle said he had seen this “movie” repeatedly, he was referring to closing out a series. Before winning a championship with the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, Carlisle’s teams had always made it past the first round. But since then, whether you want to attribute it to bad luck or the tactical chess match, each of his first-round series after lifting the Larry O’Brien Trophy has ended with a sour taste.

It’s never an easy ask to close out a series. It’s even harder to send a team packing when you’re on the road, especially a group filled with NBA champions and veterans. It takes a focus and effort that wasn’t there in Game 5. Khris Middleton isn’t going out like that. Bobby Portis definitely isn’t going out like that, nor is Rivers. Not without a fight.

“We gotta understand they’re a team on the brink of their season being done,” Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton said. “They’re playing desperate, they’re playing hard as they should be. They outcompeted us tonight. Dominated us in every facet of the game.”

Between the second and third quarter, the Pacers scored 36 points on 37 shots, a drop in efficiency for a group that came into Tuesday’s game ranked second among playoff teams in offensive rating, scoring 123.4 points per 100 possessions. With four minutes left before halftime, the Pacers had scored nine points in the second quarter.

In Game 1, the Bucks surprised the Pacers with a constant barrage of pressure, a slightly different look from what they had seen during their regular-season meetings. Game 5 was similar, with Milwaukee adjusting its coverage based on who Indiana had on the floor. The Pacers’ inability to string together decent offensive possessions bled into their effort at the other end, with the Bucks putting together a series of runs to extend the lead.

For example, when the Pacers went small with their zone attacker lineup (featuring T.J. McConnell running the show and Obi Toppin running the floor), the Bucks ensured all five players on the floor were within helping distance of one another — even with Danilo Gallinari.

Milwaukee also showed a willingness to aggressively switch. When they didn’t switch, the Bucks would send pressure and more importantly, have the proper rotations. In the clip below, big man Myles Turner is deterred from taking this early deep 3 because Brook Lopez is in the vicinity, sending the ball back to Haliburton. Even when the Pacers make the right read off Haliburton being pressured (Turner floating toward the free-throw line), there’s no breathing room. Portis steps up to take away the shot forcing the ball to be moved all around the perimeter — with the Bucks rotating step for step.

The significance of what the Bucks showed defensively was that it caused a team that tends to make the extra pass to get the right shot, to have to shoot what was made available, typically late in the shot clock. Those are considered wins for a defense, especially against a Pacers unit that stresses pace.

“When we’re successful, we move the ball, we cut, we drive, we share,” Carlisle said. “There were stretches in the first half where there was too much isolation. There were some non-paint touch shots that were ill-advised, we turned it over. We weren’t good enough.”

Indiana trailed by five points at the break, but Rivers, who said he’s enjoyed the tactical battle with Carlisle, pulled off another trick.

The Bucks had introduced cross-matching earlier in the series and the Pacers were used to it on a smaller scale, with Haliburton being defended by Malik Beasley instead of Patrick Beverley, who guarded Andrew Nembhard. Indiana wasn’t prepared for slotting Middleton on Turner and Lopez on Aaron Nesmith.

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Like every defensive scheme, especially ones inserted late in a series, there are calculated gambles. The objective of switching those two specific matchups is to prevent, or at least slow down, Turner’s floor-spacing. Through the first four games of the series, his penchant for launching — and connecting — on deep 3s had given the Pacers the upper hand in the half court. Keeping Lopez on Nesmith allows him to roam a bit more and be a negator. Middleton on Turner only further encourages switching.

The gamble is that Turner won’t slip the screen and the Pacers, a team that moves the ball and seeks the best shot, will slow things down, looking for mismatches and forcing them.

Watch Milwaukee’s communication on this possession. Turner momentarily has the much smaller Beverley on him, but as he makes his path towards the rim, Beverley instructs Lopez to switch. Now, Lopez has Turner, Beverley has Nesmith and Middleton is on Nembhard. Turner gets yet another chance off a screen to roll toward the rim with a mismatch, but Portis slides in to ensure safety. Another late, deep shot. Another win for the defense.

“They did something a little different, they switched the matchups,” Haliburton said. “We just got stagnant, stopped making shots, stopped playing our brand of basketball and ultimately fell into the way they play. They controlled the pace tonight.”

Having seen the damage and with a day of film before a crucial Game 6, expect the Pacers to be prepared for any switching the Bucks throw, but they looked ill-equipped to handle it Tuesday. Considering this is the 10th time the teams have seen each other this season, everything should be expected. This isn’t the first counter the Bucks have shown. It won’t be the last.

We’re going to see some different looks over the course of this,” Haliburton said. “It’s the 10th time we’ve played them. They got two of their main guys not playing right now, and who knows what their status will be in the next game. We just gotta be prepared for whatever. I think the focus is more on who we are, and we just didn’t do that today.”

Indiana couldn’t break down Milwaukee, no matter how many times the Pacers tried to move the ball around the floor. Haliburton said one counter to this is playing with more aggression and getting downhill, but if Lopez can hover near the basket, that won’t be easy.

“It’s a long series,” Carlisle said. “We’re going to Game 6 and going back home. We gotta get prepared for Thursday.”


• As much as the Bucks’ defensive strategy confused the Pacers, what Indiana did when it was in similar situations can’t continue, not if the Pacers want to win this series. Carlisle lamented his team’s overall effort, citing the rebounding (44 to 36) as a big reason for his team’s loss. Milwaukee finished with an offensive rating of 129.5, but rewatching some early possessions, it’s easy to see why. The Pacers had several communication breakdowns, such as letting a Beverley cut and Portis on the block command three sets of eyes, momentarily leaving Pat Connaughton open on the perimeter.

• At some point, both Middleton and Portis — who combined for 58 points, 22 rebounds and six assists — were going to have a strong joint performance in a non-Damian Lillard showing. Both players are tough covers, Portis with his physicality around the basket and his soft touch away from it and Middleton’s overall silkiness. But you could make the argument that Beasley’s 18 points and Beverley’s 12 assists were just as impactful. Beasley is not Lillard from a talent perspective, but he is an elite floor spacer who requires attention. Beverley, for all his antics, is still a smart guard who understands how to control an offense, at least in the interim.

(Photo of Tyrese Haliburton and Khris Middleton: Stacy Revere / Getty Images)

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