Bucks-Pacers preview: How will injuries to Giannis, Tyrese Haliburton impact series? (2024)

The Milwaukee Bucks and Indiana Pacers got to know each other well to start the 2023-24 season. In a little more than two months, thanks to the In-Season Tournament and the randomness of the NBA schedule, they played each other five times by the third day of 2024.

And now, as both teams prepare for a rematch in a first-round playoff series, they haven’t seen each other in three months. The Bucks have a different head coach. The Pacers have different players. Both teams have changed significantly since they last met on Jan. 3, so let’s start the process of getting reacquainted.


The series doesn’t start until Sunday, so there will be plenty of time for more deep dives, but let’s start with a broad view of this series.

While Kelly Iko normally handles the Houston Rockets and other happenings around the NBA, he will be taking over the Pacers beat for this postseason, so here is a conversation between him and Eric Nehm, our Milwaukee Bucks beat writer.

Kelly Iko: Eric! Good to see you, brother. Excited to be jumping on for this matchup.

This is the first-round series everyone wanted, right? From a distance, it always felt as if the Bucks and Pacers were destined to see each other at some point in the playoffs. The regular season series was filled with drama, from Giannis’ Game-ball-gate to Tyrese Haliburton mocking Damian Lillard’s signature celebration, the In-Season Tournament shootout and everything in between.

Before we dive into the X’s and O’s: Why do these upcoming games intrigue you? Haliburton, Indiana’s heartbeat, is from Oshkosh, Wis., for goodness sake! Are you expecting a continuance of the antics we saw during the year?

Eric Nehm: Following the Bucks’ loss to the Orlando Magic on Sunday, Lillard and Khris Middleton were asked about the beef between these two teams and whether they believed that would carry over into the postseason. And while Lillard told reporters the Bucks needed to be a mature team and not allow their emotions to get the best of them, Middleton admitted there will be some emotion after all of their regular season drama. So, I don’t think there will be any love lost.

Honestly, the Pacers’ ability to take advantage of the Bucks’ weaknesses and let them know about it is what intrigues me most about this series. The Pacers are young and brash and, led by Haliburton, they play at an incredible pace. It is the type of team that can take advantage of the Bucks, who are a more veteran team and not the most fleet of foot.


The Pacers leveraged their pace against the Bucks in all five regular-season matchups. The Pacers could view the Bucks as the old guard and themselves as the young upstarts messing with the established order in the Eastern Conference.

Iko: All five regular-season meetings were against then-Bucks head coach Adrian Griffin. The Pacers won four of those games thanks to their blistering pace, as you mentioned, led by Haliburton’s All-NBA level production (27.0 points, 11.0 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 1.2 turnovers on .532/.375./.909 splits). But there’s something about the playoffs, whether it’s the level of intensity or pressure, that blurs the lines.

We’ve seen this before in the NBA, where a team has an opponent in a vise during the regular season and once April hits, any advantage means nothing. Both teams have changed since January. Buddy Hield, Bennedict Mathurin and Bruce Brown, who played against Milwaukee, aren’t around. This also will be the first time the Bucks face the Pacers with Pascal Siakam in an Indiana uniform. Will all of those changes be a factor in this series?

Nehm: This is a tough series to gauge because of all of the changes to both teams. Aside from the addition of Patrick Beverley, the Bucks have the same personnel as they did when they played the Pacers in the first half of the season, but they have been deployed in different ways by new head coach Doc Rivers and that has changed how the Bucks are trying to win games.

Under Griffin, the Bucks were poor defensively (21st in defensive rating). They have been better under Rivers on that end (14th in defensive rating), but still not elite. And the Bucks have been much worse offensively (17th in offensive rating under Rivers versus second under Griffin). It’s necessary to note the Bucks went from one of the easiest schedules in the NBA under Griffin to one of the most difficult schedules under Rivers.


If the Bucks are going to find more success against the Pacers, the biggest thing they’ll need to correct is their transition defense. In their five earlier matchups, the Pacers piled up transition points and consistently got out on the run. The Bucks will need to stem that in the postseason. Rivers recently told reporters that improving the Bucks’ transition defense was one of his focuses when he took over and that work will take center stage against the Pacers.

What do you think is the most significant change to the Pacers? Is it Haliburton’s health? Everything that Siakam brings to the table?

Iko: Haliburton’s health (left hamstring strain) is going to factor into how this series goes. He’s taking more than four fewer shots a game since November and I don’t see this series lasting six or seven games if we don’t see shades of his In-Season Tournament aggression. The biggest change has to be Siakam, right? This was the big move to cement their commitment to winning, which cost them three first-round picks.

The Siakam addition has been a mixed bag. In a vacuum, a trade of that magnitude in the middle of a season for a player who has historically ranked in the top 10 percent of usage implies schematics will shift toward catering to his skill set. But the Pacers aren’t wired like that and Siakam isn’t that type of player. He has the ball in his hands a good amount, yes, but he’s a jumbo two-way forward with guard skills and center-like instincts.

The synergy with Haliburton has been there at times, but it’s still a work in progress. Per PBPStats, Indiana is a plus-2.15 with both Siakam and Haliburton on the floor — decent, not great — and in 922 possessions, the starting lineup (with those two dominating touches) scores just 115.6 points per 100 possessions, good for the 44th percentile.

But his presence is important. Defensively, you can put Siakam in different spots against the Bucks and he should be able to use his physicality and length to deter some actions and guard multiple positions. The majority of this roster is also untested in a playoff setting and Siakam is an NBA champion. Haliburton and the rest of the roster will lean on his experience.

The Pacers will need more of the 2022 version of Siakam, the one who averaged nearly 28 points per game against Milwaukee. If there was a reference game Indiana should draw on going into this series showing the best version of Haliburton/Siakam, it would be the road win over the Clippers in late March. Siakam finished with 31, Haliburton had 21 and nine assists as the Pacers took down a Clippers team at full strength. If Indiana can draw that out of Siakam for the next two weeks, it has a shot, especially with Giannis Antetokounmpo potentially missing a couple of games.


How does Giannis’ looming absence change things for Milwaukee?

Nehm: I hate to say it, but it seems like we are destined to see this series decided by the severity of the injuries to the star players from both teams.

You talked about how things have been different for Haliburton since he has been injured. On Tuesday, Doc Rivers told reporters that Lillard was a late scratch from practice, and while Bobby Portis assured reporters Lillard will be ready for Game 1, it sounds like Lillard could be less than 100 percent for this series.

What is that is ailing Lillard? His adductor, his groin?

Rivers: "I think it's that. His Achilles. His groin. We want him to be as close to 100 percent as possible, if you can be that at this point." https://t.co/Fyv9X0c4sK

— Eric Nehm (@eric_nehm) April 16, 2024

As for Antetokounmpo, The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported Monday, there is doubt about Antetokounmpo’s status to start the series. As I wrote last week when the injury first occurred, calf injuries are tricky. People will draw a parallel to when Kevin Durant strained his calf and then tore his Achilles during the 2019 playoffs to Antetokounmpo’s current left soleus strain.

Antetokounmpo has shown he can recover quicker than most from serious injuries throughout his career, but this will be one of the trickier recoveries he’s needed to pull off. And if he can’t play in all of the games, that could mean trouble for the Bucks.

I’ve seen it firsthand in each of the last two seasons. In 2022, the Bucks didn’t have enough with Middleton missing the entirety of their second-round series against the Celtics. In 2023, Antetokounmpo played only 2 1/2 games against the Miami Heat and the No. 1 seed Bucks lost in five games in a shocking first-round upset.

While Lillard is a star who led the Trail Blazers to a Western Conference finals, this Bucks team is built around Antetokounmpo. Lillard was supposed to be the perfect pairing with Antetokounmpo, not the star trying to win with the help of his teammates, and that is going to leave the Bucks in a tough position if Antetokounmpo ends up missing a large swath of this series.


If Lillard and Haliburton participate from the start of the series, even if limited by injury, and Antetokounmpo gets on the floor for, let’s say, Game 3, what else could decide this series?

Iko: As much as we’ve discussed the players in this matchup, coaching might ultimately be the deciding factor — which might give Rick Carlisle a slight edge.

Here’s what I mean: Both Carlisle and Rivers have won NBA titles and on both occasions (Carlisle with the Mavericks in 2011, Rivers with the Celtics in 2008), defensive acumen was at the forefront.

This is a series that, on paper, has all the makings of a track meet. Indiana’s pace will dictate the tempo of this matchup, and for at least the first two games, Milwaukee will struggle to adapt, at least without Giannis.

But where Carlisle’s prowess can shine in the interim is constructing schemes to attempt to slow down Lillard. In the last two January meetings, the Pacers used Brown, T.J. McConnell and Hield as their most frequent Lillard defenders. (Brown did a fine job, for what it’s worth.)

I expect Andrew Nembhard and Aaron Nesmith to have their fair share of cracks trying to frustrate Lillard as much as possible and chasing him around ball screens. Because of Indiana’s struggles in the paint, I wonder how they’ll use Myles Turner’s length and physicality to swarm the middle — leaving him in drop versus Lillard is diabolical. The Pacers don’t switch a ton if they can help it, but they might need to tweak that approach against this team. My prediction is a seven-game series.

Where do you see this series being dictated?

Nehm: The coverage on Lillard will be fascinating to watch, especially if the Bucks start the series with Antetokounmpo on the sidelines. Since the league stopped calling as many fouls, teams have found success being more physical with Lillard, doing their best to jam him up on the perimeter and force him to drive to the rim. This has been particularly successful when Lillard has struggled with nagging injuries to his core, like the ones he has dealt with during the last few weeks, so I suspect the Pacers will have Nembhard try to get his hands on Lillard as much as possible at the start of Game 1 to set a physical defensive tone.


The Pacers did not have anything for Antetokounmpo. The two-time NBA MVP forward averaged 42.2 points, 13.0 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game against the Pacers this season, but that was all before the Pacers added Siakam. So, they may be able to hold up better against Antetokounmpo now, but if he can play at a high level, he will dictate the terms of how the Bucks play offensively. That’s just what Antetokounmpo does in the postseason. He bends the will of every defense, so his presence (or absence) will loom large.

On the other end, much of the Bucks’ success in this series will depend on what they can do with Haliburton. With their defensive personnel and their struggles at the point of attack against perimeter defenders, the Bucks are not going to shut Haliburton down, but they have to find something better than what they were doing under Griffin. By the fifth matchup of the regular season, the Bucks were so desperate for a way to get stops against Haliburton, they gave up soft switches and Turner scored easy buckets at the rim on three of the Pacers’ first four possessions of the game.

Because they might not find an answer for Haliburton in half-court settings, the Bucks have to take away easy looks in transition from him. That means the Bucks need to take care of the ball and avoid turnovers, take good shots, keep good floor balance and not overcommit themselves to the offensive glass and then get back every single possession.

And because I’m not sure how the Bucks try to defend Haliburton, I agree with you about a potential seven-game series. Milwaukee’s injury concerns are going to give the Pacers a couple of chances to steal a game early in the series and then the Bucks might need some help from Antetokounmpo, which will be difficult to rely upon with his left soleus strain.

Iko: Let’s wrap with predictions. The Bucks should get by in the end, but it will take seven games and there will be a fair share of nervy moments.

Nehm: Antetokounmpo’s health will be a real question throughout the series, even if he does end up getting back on the floor. The Bucks are going to be strong on Haliburton, even if he is somewhat limited, but ultimately they’ll have enough talent to get past the Pacers in seven games.

(Photo: Stacy Revere / Getty Images)

Bucks-Pacers preview: How will injuries to Giannis, Tyrese Haliburton impact series? (2024)
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