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Bench masterclass lead Pacers to 1st Conference Semifinals in a decade

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In a heart-pounding showdown at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in front of nearly 17,000 fans, the Indiana Pacers, seeded sixth, delivered a stunning performance against the third-seeded Milwaukee Bucks on May 2. The Pacers secured their trip to the Eastern Conference Semifinals with a 120-98 victory.

The win marked their first playoff series victory in nearly a decade, with their last win coming over the Washington Wizards in 2014.

Earlier in the season, Pacers point guard and all-star Tyrese Haliburton spoke about how his team outpaces many, if not all, teams in the league.

“Teams do not want to run with us,” Haliburton said. “I do not care who it is. Nobody wants to run with us.”

Indiana Pacers player Tyrese Haliburton screaming
Indiana Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton yells after a play against the Milwaukee Bucks during the second half of a semifinal in the NBA basketball In-Season Tournament, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Ian Maule)

Haliburton was correct in his assumption, as the Pacers led the league in pace for most of the 2023-24 season, ultimately finishing second with 102.16.

The quick run-and-gun style the Pacers embody has been on full display during this year’s postseason.

The Pacers came out strong in the first frame, gaining as much as a 10-point lead over the Bucks. The Pacers’ bench was an integral component in their win. Pacers forward Obi Toppin, who came off the bench in the contest, appeared unstoppable, notching 10 points in the first period. Veteran point guard T.J. McConnell, who also entered the game from the bench, put up six points. Ultimately, the Pacers’ bench outscored the Bucks’ bench 50-10.

Toppin and McConnell would both achieve career nights, putting up 21 points and 20 points respectively. Neither Toppin nor McConnell had ever reached those figures in a playoff game until that night.

The second quarter was more of the same, with the Pacers’ lead ballooning as much as 14 points. Forward Aaron Nesmith shined, generating ten points in the frame.

Milwaukee Bucks versus Indiana Pacers in Game 6 of the first-round of the 2024 NBA Playoffs on May 2, 2024 at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in downtown Indianapolis, Indiana. Photo taken by Walt Thomas.
Pacers guard T.J. McConnell (9) during Game 6 of the first-round of the 2024 NBA Playoffs on May 2, 2024 at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in downtown Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo/Walt Thomas)

At halftime, the Pacers held a commanding lead of 59-47 over the Bucks. High-flying moments from Toppin sent the crowd into a frenzy, showcasing his athleticism and determination. Toppin’s acrobatic dunks and relentless hustle ignited the Pacers’ offense, leaving the Bucks scrambling to keep up.

Haliburton led the charge for the Pacers, scoring 15 points in the first half. His precision shooting and court vision kept the Bucks’ defense guessing. Haliburton’s ability to distribute the ball effectively allowed his teammates to find open looks, resulting in a well-rounded offensive attack. Haliburton finished the contest with 17 points and ten assists.

Early in the third quarter, Haliburton and Lillard exchanged words, leading to members of both teams coming together rambunctiously. Bobby Portis, ejected in Game 4 after throwing what appeared to be a punch at Pacers players during the first quarter of that contest, was at the center of the kerfuffle. The result was a double technical foul, with the other being assessed to Pacers forward James Johnson. It is also worth noting that Johnson had left the Pacers bench to meet Portis on the hardwood during their conversation.

The subsequent possessions were filled with challenges by both coaches, turnovers, and even the Gainbridge Fieldhouse DJ getting involved. During those same timeouts and official replays, many fans and players could hear “Knuck if You Buck” by Crime Mobb, something of a ‘fight anthem,’ being played throughout the arena.

Indiana Pacers
Indiana Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle addressing the media on the current state of the team during NBA Media Day at the Ascension St. Vincent Center in downtown Indianapolis on Oct. 2, 2023. (Photo/Walt Thomas)

Fortunately, this did not escalate the matter.

“Rebounding has been a big thing the whole game,” head coach Rick Carlisle said before the start of the fourth quarter.

Carlisle was not joking, as the Pacers led every statistical team category in the contest, including field goal percentage, three-pointers made, points in the paint, fast break points, bench points, steals, blocks and of course: rebounds.

The Pacers survived a Giannis-less Bucks squad in six games, taking the series 4-2. The Pacers advanced to the conference semifinals versus the New York Knicks.

Contact multimedia & sports reporter Noral Parham at (317)-762-7846. Follow him on Twitter @3Noral. For more news courtesy of the Indianapolis Recorder, click here.

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