Pacers bounce back to eliminate Bucks in Game 6, advance to Round 2

Indiana Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton celebrates in front of Milwaukee Bucks guard Malik Beasley after a dunk during the first half in Game 6 in an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Thursday, May 2, 2024, in Indianapolis. (Michael Conroy/AP Photo)

INDIANAPOLIS — T.J. McConnell and Obi Toppin complemented one another’s play perfectly Thursday night.

They were still trading fist bumps long after the Indiana Pacers celebrated a rare series-clinching victory.

Toppin scored 21 points, McConnell added 20 points and nine assists and they led the Pacers to a 120-98 rout over the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 6, sending them to their first Eastern Conference semifinal in a decade.

“It means a lot,” McConnell said. “Not getting into the playoffs since the bubble, not being able to advance since 2014, we take great pride in being able to advance and extend our season. Milwaukee has a great team and, if I can be honest with you, I think our bench has taken a couple steps back competitive wise and I think tonight all of us went out there with the mentality we’re going to take it to another level.”

Did they ever.

Nobody was better than McConnell. He finished with a playoff career best scoring total while matching his playoff career high in assists and coming up four steals — all following a dismal Game 5 in Milwaukee.

But McConnell wasn’t going to allow one bad game to derail this milestone moment for Indiana. The 4-2 series victory came exactly 30 years after Indiana won its first NBA playoff series, a 3-0 sweep over Orlando, and sets up a matchup against the winner of the Philadelphia-New York series.

New York took a 3-2 lead into Thursday’s second Game 6.

“T.J. actually helped me today, told me to be aggressive, told me to be myself,” said Toppin, who also produced a playoff career high scoring total. “Everybody did their jobs today, from the starters to the bench, everybody had a good game.”

The short-handed Bucks also played again without two-time league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who never returned to action after straining his left calf April 9.

Damian Lillard, meanwhile, returned from a strained right Achilles tendon and played well enough — but was not nearly as dominant as he was in the first two games when he scored 69 points.

Lillard finished with 28 points on 7-of-16 shooting.

“I don’t think I would have slept well and I don’t think I would have gone into the summer well, if I didn’t at least try,” Lillard said. “I came in for my pregame workout and saw all the gold shirts on the chairs and started moving around and said, ‘Let’s just do it.’”

Bobby Portis Jr. added 20 points and 15 rebounds for Milwaukee while Brook Lopez had 20 points and Khris Middleton had 14 points and eight rebounds.

Two-time All-Star Tyrese Haliburton finished with 17 points, 10 assists and six rebounds for the Pacers while Pascal Siakam added 19 points and seven rebounds.

Indiana went 8-3 against Milwaukee, which made its second straight first-round exit. It was the first under coach Doc Rivers — the Bucks third coach in 12 months.

“They’ve created a hell of a team, not only young, I think the Siakam trade really will change their fortunes going forward,” Rivers said. “They’re just a tough team. Obviously, we had guys out and all that, and that’s hard, right? But let’s give them credit. I thought they played terrific.”

The 2021 NBA champs certainly weren’t going to let Indiana close it out easily, and they didn’t.

Yes, Indiana turned the game with a 23-3 first-quarter spurt that gave them a 29-19 lead that they never surrendered. But the Bucks kept charging back, and the Pacers kept responding.

When Milwaukee cut the deficit to 38-34 early in the second quarter, Indiana scored seven straight points. When the Bucks opened the second half on a 9-4 run to close to 63-56, Indiana responded with a 10-5 run to extend the margin to 12.

And when Milwaukee got as close as 85-78 with 6:05 left in the third, McConnell capped an 11-0 run with back-to-back 3-pointers to make it 96-78 early in the fourth.

“The games we won, we dictated the pace,” Haliburton said. “So we knew we were going to have to come out and be aggressive.”

The Bucks never recovered from Indiana’s last big surge, which extended the margin to as much as 104-84 with 8:07 to play while setting off a party-like atmosphere inside Gainbridge Fieldhouse as the crowd sent the Pacers off with a standing ovation.

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