NBA Cup Adds Spectacular Spark to Bucks-Pacers Rivalry

The NBA’s inaugural tournament has been worth it for all involved. For the Lakers, many men who could use a $500,000 direct deposit got it. Tyrese Haliburton emerged from the tourney as the newest NBA superstar. Also, a real inter-division rivalry is budding. The Indiana Pacers and Milwaukee Bucks appear to not rock with each other and that is wonderful.

These central division foes have played against each other three times since Nov. 9. One of those was an In-Season Tournament knockout-round game. The young Pacers rained jumpers on the heads of the Bucks in a 128-119 victory.

On Tuesday, the Pacers played in Milwaukee for the first time during the 2023-24 regular season. Haliburton performed well, scoring 22 points on 50 percent shooting from the field while adding seven assists. However, he was no match for Giannis Antetokounmpo, who set a franchise record by scoring 64 points in a 140-126 victory.

The game was in the balance until Pacers try-hard youngster, Aaron Nesmith, sent Antetokounmpo to the floor with what would eventually be ruled a Flagrant 1. There was no actual harm done, but the Bucks were not willing to chalk the play up as no blood, no foul. Bobby Portis — who once broke teammate Nikola Mirotic’s face during an altercation in which he reportedly was not the aggressor — was literally spitting mad after Antetokounmpo was sent tumbling. Portis was ejected a little more than a minute after receiving that first technical foul for his involvement in another altercation.

Of Antetokounmpo’s 64 points, he scored 26 of them after Nesmith put him on the ground. He went 14-20 from the free-throw line and 6-8 from the field in the fourth quarter. The Pacers were helpless as he broke Michael Redd’s record through brute force.

Apparently, hard feelings lingered after the game because the Bucks alleged that the Pacers raced off of the court with the game ball. A ball that was supposed to go to Antetokounmpo for his franchise-best achievement. Per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, it was a Bucks employee who removed the ball from the court immediately after the game was concluded.

The Bucks players did not see that and believed that the Pacers intentionally took the ball to keep it from Antetokounmpo. There was an actual confrontation in the hallway, after which Indy coach Rick Carlisle told the media that the team’s general manager got elbowed. Carlisle claimed they were trying to get a ball for rooke Oscar Tshiebwe. Per Woj, he was presented with a ball that was not the main one used in the game.

In his postgame press conference, Antetokounmpo said the ball that was presented to him in honor of his record-setting night did not feel like the one that was used in the game. He also threw in that he does not have the ball from his 50-point, Game 6 NBA Championship clincher in 2021.

Damian Lillard said flatly, during his postgame press conference, that the Pacers took the ball. He told the media that sometimes teams act petty when they get shown up — even though Antetokounmpo was pulled with more than three minutes remaining in the game with the Bucks up by 19 points.

Haliburton has shown some chops not only on the basketball court, but on social media as well since his Pacers defeated the Bucks in that In-Season Tournament semi-final game. While he did not directly refer to either Lillard or Antetokounmpo’s press conferences, he used the cover of a literary classic to express his belief that the Bucks’ stars were less than truthful with their comments.

In a league with few actual rivalries between teams, and a handful of players who act like bullies, what happened on Wednesday night is grand — for those who aren’t a two-time NBA MVP named Giannis, who cares if he received the correct basketball. If that is the final straw that starts a real rivalry, then more NBA teams need to make a habit of running off with the ball following their opponents historic moments.

Players combing the depths of an arena for the game ball, that is the type of ridiculous conflict that makes the NBA great. Screw perspective, get upset and make wild accusations. The arena is not a court of law.

I was not at Fiserv Forum on Wednesday night. All I can confirm is the stats I read, Antetokoumpo’s dominance, and that the crowd chanted “Bobby!” after both of Portis’ technical fouls. With all of that, along with the social media melodrama after the game, NBA League Pass paid for itself on Wednesday night.

The In-Season Tournament now deserves a standing ovation.