The Milwaukee Bucks snapped a two-game losing streak and further cemented their spot atop the Eastern Conference with a commanding 117-98 victory over the Indiana Pacers on Thursday at Fiserv Forum.
Indiana is just 2-4 in its last six games after dropping the potential playoff preview.
The Bucks' pair of All-Stars led the way in the win. Giannis Antetokounmpo stuffed the stat sheet with 29 points, 12 rebounds and five assists, while Khris Middleton added 27 points, four assists and three steals from the backcourt.
Myles Turner notched a double-double with 22 points and 17 boards for the Pacers, but it wasn't enough to overcome a Milwaukee side that is 26-5 at home this season.
Giannis' Evolving Jumper a Nightmare for East Contenders
McCollum and the Blazers Snapped Postseason Losing Streak for "Jennifer"
Stars Invest in Plant-Based Food as Vegetarianism Sweeps NBA
The NBA Got Some Wild Techs This Season
Jarrett Allen Is One of the NBA’s Hottest Rim Protectors
Wade's Jersey Swaps Created Epic Moments This Season
Westbrook Makes History While Honoring Nipsey Hussle
Devin Booker Makes History with Scoring Tear
29 Years Ago, Jordan Dropped Career-High 69 Points
Bosh Is Getting His Jersey Raised to the Rafters in Miami
Steph Returns to Houston for 1st Time Since His Moon Landing Troll
Lou Williams Is Coming for a Repeat of Sixth Man of the Year
Pat Beverley Has the Clippers Stealing the LA Shine
LeBron Keeps Shredding NBA Record Books
Young's Hot Streak Is Heating Up the ROY Race with Luka
LeBron and 2 Chainz Form a Superteam to Release a New Album
Wade's #OneLastDance Dominated February
Warriors Fans Go Wild After Unforgettable Moments with Steph
Eight Years Ago, the Nuggets Traded Melo to the Knicks
Two Years Ago, the Kings Shipped Boogie to the Pelicans
ASG Will Be Competitive Again If the NBA Raises the Stakes
Antetokounmpo makes head-turning plays on a nightly basis, but the fact that he drilled his first triple and connected on all eight of his free throws against the Pacers should send a chill down the rest of the Eastern Conference's spine.
Consistent shooting is the one thing missing from his game, as he entered the night hitting just 24.1 percent of his three-pointers and a solid but unspectacular 70.8 percent of his free throws this season.
However, that has changed of late. He shot 40 percent from deep and 78.3 percent from the charity stripe in February—his highest marks for a month all season.
Even without shooting prowess, Antetokounmpo is impossible to stop. He combines the height of a center and the ball-handling of a stretch forward with a frame that allows him to get from the three-point line to the rim in two long strides and finish through contact. Opponents must send multiple defenders his way every possession to have a realistic chance.
Even that's a long shot.
Given that skill set, ignoring outside shooting would be easy. But he's still attempting 2.5 three-pointers per game. His perseverance is a testament to an understanding that if he unlocks that facet of his game, he will become even more of a nightmare to defend. The only strategy to stop him—outside sending a second defender—is to provide space, dare him to shoot and hope he misses.
If defenders have to press up on his shot, Antetokounmpo can back down smaller foes and blow past bigger ones before finishing with even more ease.
Continuing to improve upon his only weakness by playoff time will force even more double-teams, which presents another problematic scenario for other Eastern Conference contenders. After all, he's surrounded by many marksmen such as Middleton, Brook Lopez, Tony Snell, Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic.
His free-throw shooting against the Pacers was also a welcome sign because he'll draw plenty of contact in the postseason when the defensive intensity increases around the rim.
The MVP candidate consistently hitting from the stripe and sprinkling in some three-point shooting to keep defenses honest provides Milwaukee's clearest path to the NBA Finals. That development would truly make him unstoppable.
Pacers' Hopes of Playing Playoff Spoiler Rest on Bench
Writing off the Pacers after Victor Oladipo was lost for the season with a knee injury would have been easy.
After all, he was their go-to playmaker and a force on both sides of the floor, even battling with LeBron James throughout a back-and-forth seven-game playoff series last season. He's exactly the type of player on whom teams must focus in crunch time of postseason games.
Oladipo's injury seemingly cleared an obstacle for the Bucks, Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers, but Indiana's bench has other ideas.
According to NBA.com, Indiana entered play first in in bench net rating (3.4), further ahead of the second-place Los Angeles Clippers (2.2) than the Clippers were ahead of the No. 9 Brooklyn Nets (1.3).
The Pacers' second unit features a dangerous shooter in Doug McDermott, a veteran leader who can control the pace in Cory Joseph, a double-double threat in Domantas Sabonis (who missed the game with injury) and a scoring spark in Tyreke Evans who can attack the basket with an explosive first step and exploit opposing bench defenders.
Indiana's depth extends throughout the roster, with seven different players (eight, if you include Oladipo) averaging double figures.
This team is as well equipped as any to overcome one or two starters struggling in a playoff game. Many squads won't be able to afford an off night from their primary playmakers, but the Pacers can bring in the NBA's best bench for an eight-minute spurt and change the course of an entire game. Perhaps even an entire series.
Without Oladipo to bail them out, they still face an uphill battle in a daunting Eastern Conference. But it would be unwise to assume they'll be pushovers come playoff time.
The Bucks host the Charlotte Hornets on Saturday, while the Pacers are at the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday.