May 25, 2024

Pacers overwhelm Bucks with turbocharged play, and T.J. McConnell was the catalyst

As a few Indiana Pacers players filed into Fiserv Forum a few hours before Game 1, T.J. McConnell was already on the floor, having worked up a pregame sweat with an assistant coach.

At this point, McConnell had lost count of the number of shots he had taken. But he wasn’t worried about the frequency. He was studying the methodology, the sequencing of his jumper.

Over a nine-year career with the Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers, McConnell has never been considered a shooter. His career 35-percent mark from 3 has come on less than one attempt per game.

That has never deterred him from his process. His shot is unique, less fluid than your average NBA player catching and shooting, but it’s his style. And for the next 15 minutes, it’s the most important thing in his world.

Once McConnell catches the ball, he holds it, pauses, and points the ball downward with both hands, searching for the optimal spin before pausing again and bringing it back up to release. In real time, it’s a slow, quirky motion, considerably less fluid than his colleagues. It’s deliberate, almost as if he’s thinking through each action as it occurs.

In a way, the playoffs are just that: Attention to detail. And on two separate, equally important moments in Thursday night’s 120-98 series-clinching, Game 6 win over the Milwaukee Bucks, McConnell reaffirmed its significance.

In both instances, the nearest defender might as well have been in the locker room. The Bucks dared the 32-year-old to shoot, paying him no mind as they attempted to contain everything else. On both occasions, McConnell caught the ball, pointed it downward and lifted it back up. He’d slowed his mechanics down so many times. Speeding them up wasn’t an issue.

Splash. Splash.

Sometimes, scouting reports don’t mean anything. McConnell finished with a near-perfect game: 20 points on 7-for-9 shooting, nine assists, two rebounds and four steals. He scored more than any Pacers starter and just one fewer point than fellow reserve Obi Toppin. McConnell, who has scored 20 points or more just four times this season, saved his best for last.

His bounce-back today was absolutely phenomenal,” Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle told reporters. “In this game, he was the major difference-maker with defensive intensity full court, knocked in two or three 3s, got in some difficult hoops around the basket. That period, late third to early fourth, it was something else.”

I felt like tonight was one of my better, ‘Let the game come to me’ games,” McConnell told reporters after the win. “I feel like I’ve tried to force the issue a couple of games and it hasn’t worked out the way I’d like to.”

Thursday was the 11th time the Pacers and Bucks saw each other this season, so there weren’t many surprises left for Carlisle and Bucks coach Doc Rivers. Inserting Damian Lillard back into the equation gave Milwaukee an added weapon, and his game-high 28 points was a testament to his lethality, hobbled or not.

In response, the Pacers, as they had all season, needed to trust in their second unit for extended periods. During the regular season, Indiana could fall back on their bench production, knowing players like Buddy Hield and Bennedict Mathurin would bring a high level of offensive efficiency. With Hield now in Philadelphia and Mathurin out due to season-ending shoulder surgery, the Pacers didn’t have the luxury of calling on either of those players. McConnell and Toppin had to step up.

More importantly, a team that ranked in the bottom quadrant of playoff teams defensively had no more room for excuses. There was still a possibility both Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo — who has not played all series after a late-season calf injury — would take the floor in a potential Game 7. The Pacers had already let an opportunity to close out the series slip away earlier this week. They couldn’t let it happen again.

We had to make some adjustments coming into this game,” Carlisle said. “Our poor offense was leading to bad defense. The difference in the series was pressure and it’s very difficult to get a group of guys to buy into 94-foot full-court pressure on every possession that’s not a fastbreak. And our guys did it. That allowed us to maintain our pace and felt if we could keep pressure on them, we could make it difficult.”

McConnell, with a game-high four steals, was at the forefront of the Pacers’ pressure. He refused to let the Bucks have even a whiff of space. During six minutes in the first quarter, the Pacers held the Bucks to nine points while scoring 25 of their own. Overall, Indiana held Milwaukee to 24 points or fewer in three out of the four quarters.

McConnell’s energy impacted Toppin, creating a formidable reserve pairing on a night where the starters didn’t exactly blow the Bucks away. Indiana found advantages by using their defensive pressure to generate stops and run, where they scored 21 fastbreak points. Pascal Siakam scored 19 points on 9-for-15 shots and Tyrese Haliburton chipped in 17 of his own to go with 10 rebounds and six assists, Both were efficient, but not otherworldly in a must-win game. It was largely McConnell’s energy that led the way on both ends of the floor.

Pretty poor performance for me last game, competitively and all around,” McConnell told reporters. “Just tried to go to a different place competitively and get our crowd involved. When they’re involved, it’s a really hard place to play.”

Carlisle’s reliance on his starting five in this series wasn’t surprising. During the regular season, the starting unit of Haliburton, Andrew Nembhard, Aaron Nesmith, Siakam and Myles Turner outscored opponents by 6.4 points per 100 possessions over 444 minutes, per tracking data. The next group that didn’t include at least one of Hield, Mathurin or Bruce Brown (traded to Toronto to acquire Siakam) played just 45 minutes together. The difference between the Pacers’ starters and their next most-used lineup during the regular season is 112 minutes, quite a sizable gap. The trust Carlisle had to deploy lineups outside of ones he was most comfortable using in the regular season was an underrated key to Indiana’s victory.

Game 6 ultimately came down to which team could get more out of the “others,” as TNT’s Shaquille O’Neal so often says. The Pacers won that battle in a landslide, outscoring the Bucks’ bench 50-10. A gap that substantial is almost unheard of in the playoffs, when teams tend to ride their starters more to maximize their strengths and minimizing their weaknesses. But the Pacers have told us all season long they are not just a hit Haliburton single, featuring Siakam.

“The thing I love about this team is that we’re a true team,” Carlisle said. “We’ve got some great individual players, but we’re a group that needs each other. I think it’s something the people of Indianapolis and the state of Indiana can get behind. … We work at communication. We are collaborative with our guys. We make sure they have a voice when we’re making difficult decisions in a series. And we’re all in the whole thing together.”

The beauty of the Pacers, especially considering their collective youth, has been their ability to correct mistakes after losses. Indiana was 23-12 after a loss during the regular season and 2-0 in this series. They’ll need that resilience in the second round against a talented New York Knicks team.

Regardless of the personnel on the floor, the Pacers got the better of Milwaukee eight out of 11 times, which speaks to making correct, timely adjustments. The Bucks’ switching defense caught the Pacers by surprise in Game 5. On Thursday, the Pacers turned on the jets regardless of what was in front of them.

“We didn’t wait to see what they were going to do,” Haliburton said. “It didn’t really matter. We just attacked.”

Game 1 in New York is Monday. Despite missing a star player in Julius Randle, the Knicks have developed their own unique bond. Jalen Brunson is a headache and a defensive frontcourt featuring Josh Hart, OG Anunoby and Isaiah Hartenstein might make for some sleepless nights for Indiana’s coaching staff.

But for one night, the Pacers will celebrate what they’ve already accomplished. The taste of that success is why every sprint was met with so much force. The fervor emanating from Gainbridge Fieldhouse pierced phones, laptop screens or whatever way you consumed Game 6.

Because as much as the Pacers’ story is about the now, it’s also about the ones who came before. It’s as much about the underdog McConnell as it is for past All-Star Victor Oladipo. Equal parts Haliburton and Tyreke Evans, who only spent one year with the Pacers. As much about Nembhard and Nesmith as it is for Lance Stephenson, Monta Ellis, CJ Miles and George Hill. This is for the team that made it as much as the ones who tried, and failed, to get out of the first round over the last decade.

For Indiana, the home of basketball purists. 

“Congratulations to our guys,” Carlisle said. “First time in 10 years our fans have had this kind of feeling. That’s a great thing for this city and state.”

(Photo: Dylan Buell / Getty Images)