FOR GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO, it was supposed to be a moment of triumph. He made a thunderous dunk with less than 30 seconds left to give his team a 16-point lead, capping the Milwaukee Bucks’ Dec. 13 victory over the visiting Indiana Pacers. Antetokounmpo’s final dunk gave him a career-high 64 points, the most any Bucks player has ever scored in a game.
All he wanted was his prize.
As the final seconds ticked down and players and team staff flooded the court, a frantic effort began to secure the game ball, on both sides.
Antetokounmpo wanted it to commemorate his record-breaking night. The Pacers wanted to give it to rookie Oscar Tshiebwe, who scored his first career regular-season point that night.
Unsure of the ball’s whereabouts, Antetokounmpo exchanged heated words with Pacers players and staff before running to the Indiana locker room in search of the ball.
“People didn’t see the way Indiana acted that night,” a Bucks team source told ESPN. “You come into our house and take our stuff. You scream, ‘Fuck you. Screw you.’ Yeah, how’s a guy going to react?”
Antetokounmpo questioned after the game whether he was in possession of the actual ball, but camera footage showed a Bucks staff member collecting the ball almost immediately after the buzzer sounded. The ball Indiana received and gave to Tshiebwe was apparently a substitute.
“It was unnecessary, it was over the top,” Pacers center Myles Turner told ESPN last week. “They had the ball the whole time. I think that was obvious. So I’ll leave it at that.”
However, something else had irritated Antetokounmpo before he began furiously making sure Milwaukee had possession of the ball. The two-time MVP was also upset that the Pacers had stormed off the court after the buzzer without shaking hands, team sources told ESPN, which Antetokounmpo saw as a sign of disrespect.
“Does everyone shake hands in the NBA after a game?” Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton told ESPN as he shook his head.
“They tried to run up the score at the end,” Turner told ESPN. “Giannis came in, came out, then we cut the lead to about 10 points in garbage time – they put all their starters back in and then tried to run up the score. There are unwritten rules in basketball. We thought that’s how it was. “It’s a foul of respect and some guys reacted accordingly.
The heated exchange between the two teams, and its aftermath, is exactly how rivalries are born. The two teams return to the scene of the fight in Milwaukee on New Year’s Day before traveling to Indiana for a game on Wednesday, which will already mark their fifth meeting of the season.
Bucks-Pacers is one of seven regular-season matchups that will involve a fifth game this season, a byproduct of the in-season tournament and something no team has done since the Heat and Nets during the 2003-04 season.
The Pacers beat the Bucks in their first two meetings this season, including in Las Vegas in the semifinals of the season tournament. So Milwaukee was determined not to let Indiana earn a third straight win in their most recent matchup.
“We kind of intimidated them in that game,” said Bucks forward Bobby Portis, who was ejected in the fourth quarter of that Dec. 13 game. “I think they felt that presence. When a team beats you twice, you don’t want to let them beat you three times because now they think they can play you. We played with a sense of urgency. We were more physical. We were beating them. I don’t think that “they liked it.”
FOR MARKERSthe seasonal tournament represented an opportunity.
After finishing 11th in the Eastern Conference last season, Indiana ran undefeated in the group, led by Haliburton, who made the All-Star team last year but is off to an even better start this season. The Pacers’ dominance during the tournament earned the team the kind of national television attention it had not experienced in years.
Milwaukee, meanwhile, has been a mainstay atop the East for years, but the roster changed a week before training camp when the Bucks acquired superstar Damian Lillard. But with two of the league’s biggest stars working together, Milwaukee presented a formidable obstacle to Indiana, a small-market team with aspirations of unseating another.
“They won a championship, man. A small-market team that wins a championship obviously has a good formula,” Turner said of comparing himself to the Bucks. “They’re in the division too. I don’t think we use other teams as measuring sticks, I don’t think that’s the best way to put it. We’re running our own race right now. And seeing how we stack up against other teams and grow game after game.”
Until their loss in the championship game against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Pacers had used the tournament as a showcase for their top-ranked offense. Haliburton averages 24.6 points and leads the NBA with an average of 12.8 assists while shooting 50% from the field and 41% from 3.
He has had 20 points and 20 assists in consecutive games through Monday, joining John Stockton (1990) and Magic Johnson (1984) as the only players in NBA history with consecutive games of 20 points and 20 assists, according to a ESPN Stats & Information research. No player has ever recorded 20 assists in three straight games.
“Their offensive level is beyond elite,” Indiana coach Rick Carlisle told reporters after Saturday’s 140-126 victory against the New York Knicks. “He’s worked a lot over the last two summers on reads, being able to create pressure at the rim and increasing his range, so teams are in a real bind.”
And while Haliburton is enjoying the moment, he’s also fueling the bubbling rivalry in the Midwest.
During the semi-final matchup of the season tournament, it was Haliburton who sealed the Pacers’ victory with a statement. With 48.0 seconds left, the Bucks were within five points when Haliburton hit a step-back 3-pointer beyond the outstretched hand of Bucks center Brook Lopez, who finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting a season ago. . As Haliburton turned toward the crowd, he glanced toward his wrist in a nod to Dame Time, a move usually reserved for the iconic veteran guard.
‘I know what time it is!’ Haliburton channels Lady with the Dagger 3
Tyrese Haliburton hits a 25-foot step-back 3-pointer, sealing the Pacers’ trip to the season tournament title game.
Lillard says he has no hard feelings about the mockery, but acknowledged that the games against the Pacers have been even more competitive because both teams played with something at stake in Las Vegas.
“What was at stake [second] “The time we played them is what made it something,” Lillard told ESPN. “And then what happened the third time obviously made it even more so.” “That’s a little bit more.”
PLAYERS IN BOTH The Bucks and Pacers acknowledge the increased intensity in games between the two teams so far this season and expect more of the same this week.
“There’s probably going to be some extra juice,” Haliburton told ESPN. “How can there not be?”
But a rivalry? No one is willing to go that far yet.
“We played in the season tournament,” Haliburton said. “That’s a real game, but we have to have more battles. We’re 2-1 against them this year, but at the end of the day, they’re one seed higher, we’re one seed lower. For it to be a real rivalry, “We have to compete in a playoff game. It has to happen eventually.”
Before this season, the Bucks had won 15 of their last 17 meetings with the Pacers, who have not reached the postseason since the 2019-20 season, when they were swept by the Miami Heat in the first round. If they had won that series, they would have faced Milwaukee in the East semifinals.
A playoff game this season is not out of the equation. The Bucks are currently in second place in the East; the Pacers are seventh. If those seeds hold, and the Pacers win their first play-in game, the two teams would meet in the postseason for the first time since 2000, when the Pacers beat the Bucks in the first round en route to their only NBA title. Appearance in finals.
It’s a postseason matchup that Antetokounmpo would surely enjoy. In three games this season, the two-time MVP is averaging 51.7 points on 72% shooting. But in evaluating these next two matchups, Antetokounmpo was dismissive.
“It’s just another game, man,” Antetokounmpo told ESPN. “Is it the playoffs? Why should I wait for it?”