Pacers close out Bucks for first series win in 10 years: What we learned

INDIANAPOLIS — After missing out on their first opportunity to close out a playoff series for the first time since 2014, the Indiana Pacers weren’t about to let another slip by at home. The Milwaukee Bucks had Damian Lillard back in action, but the Pacers still throttled Milwaukee 120-98 at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Game 6 of their series on Thursday night, clinching a 4-2 series win to move on to the Eastern Conference semifinals.

The series win marks the Pacers’ first since they beat the Washington Wizards in six games in the 2014 Eastern Conference semifinals. The Pacers will play either the Knicks or the 76ers with Game 6 of that series happening later Thursday night. Indiana’s second-round series will begin Monday.

Here are four observations from Thursday’s closeout victory:

Even with Damian Lillard back, Pacers’ defense steps up

The Pacers spent most of the day not certain if they would see one or both of the Bucks’ All-NBA superstars. It wasn’t official until about an hour before tip-off that Giannis Antetokounmpo would not play, but about a half-hour before that, news broke that Lillard would return after missing the last two games with an Achilles issue.

Lillard managed to get his points, scoring 28 points on 7 of 16 shooting, but guards Andrew Nembhard and T.J. McConnell made him work for those. Forward Bobby Portis and center Brook Lopez also scored 20 points each, but overall the Pacers’ defensive performance was one of their strongest of the season.

Milwaukee shot 35 of 83 from the floor (42.2%) including 7 of 27 from 3-point range. They finished with 1.04 points per possession and only one quarter over 25 points.

Obi Toppin catches fire

Obi Toppin has had some bright moments in these playoffs and he entered Game 6 averaging 10.7 points per game in the playoffs on 47.7% shooting, but he was 6 of 22 from 3-point range.

On Thursday, though, he was a force as both a rim runner and an outside shooter as he has been for much of this season.

Playing extended minutes thanks to foul trouble for center Myles Turner and starting forwards Pascal Siakam and Aaron Nesmith, Toppin scored 21 points on 8 of 15 shooting, knocking down 3 of 10 3-pointers. He also grabbed eight rebounds and was plus-9 in 24 minutes.

Toppin helped the Pacers’ bench outscore Milwaukee’s 50-10.

T.J. McConnell had his best performance of the playoffs

After the best season of his nine-year career and one of the best of any substitute in the NBA this season, McConnell struggled throughout the first five games of this series. Prior to Game 6, McConnell was averaging 7.4 points and 3.6 assists per game and shooting just 37% from the floor. And the man who once led the league in total steals for a season didn’t record a single theft.

The Pacers were a combined minus-32 in five games when McConnell was on the floor. During the regular season, he was plus-95, second only to Toppin among the players who ended the year on the Pacers’ bench.

On Thursday, McConnell seemed plenty motivated to change the direction of his postseason. He frequently guarded and harassed Lillard when he was on the floor and he was back to his pesky ways in the backcourt on defense. He stayed in attack mode on offense and got fortunate rolls on the short jumpers that he hasn’t always hit this series.

In the first half, McConnell was 2 of 3 from the floor and 4 of 4 at the line for eight points to go with six assists and three steals in 11 minutes. The Pacers were plus-11 in his minutes.

And in the second half, he was even better. McConnell drilled a 3-pointer right before the end of the third quarter and another early in the fourth with the Bucks having left him alone because the 3-ball is not usually his strong suit. That got him even more motivated for paint attacks. He finished with 20 points on 7 of 9 shooting, nine assists and four steals and was plus-22 for the game.

Pascal Siakam dominates in second half

After he scored a combined 71 points in the first two games of the series, the Bucks started committing more and more double teams to Pascal Siakam and he didn’t find it anywhere near as easy to work, scoring 17 points or fewer in each of the last three games and shooting 43% or under in all three of them. The attention didn’t let up in Game 6, and at halftime, Siakam had just four points on 2 of 4 shooting.

But with exceptional ball movement, the Pacers managed to find Siakam in more advantageous positions in the second half, he got some of his mid-range and outside shooting back and he managed some easy paint buckets and returned to the form of the go-to option he was for the early part of the series. He scored 15 points on 7 of 11 shooting in the second half and finished with 19 points for the game, making 9 of 15 total field goals.

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