Preakness Stakes

NBA playoffs: Pacers’ bench delivers in series-clinching victory over Bucks, Damian Lillard

NBA playoffs: Pacers' bench delivers in series-clinching victory over Bucks, Damian Lillard

The Milwaukee Bucks had one star back for their must-win Game 6 against the Indiana Pacers.

Yet despite Damian Lillard playing, the Pacers' tough defense and superior depth gave them the edge in a 120–98 victory. Indiana won the series 4–2 and is now onto the second round of the NBA playoffs for the first time since the 2013-14 season.

Lillard scored 28 points (shooting 7-of-16), though it was apparent he couldn't move as quickly and fluidly as usual with his strained right Achilles tendon. The Pacers defended Lillard from full-court, tiring him out and requiring the Bucks to take several seconds before getting into their offense each possession.

With that and coach Doc Rivers keeping Lillard on a minutes restriction, Milwaukee needed others to pick up their scoring responsibilities. Brook Lopez scored 20 and Bobby Portis added 20, while Khris Middleton contributed 14. But Patrick Beverley only managed six points on 3-for-11 shooting while having to carry the ball-handling burden for a Bucks team that just wore down.

T.J. McConnell scored 20 points off the bench to help lift the Pacers past the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 6 of their first-round playoff series. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

The last time Indiana advanced past the first round of the playoffs was 10 years ago. Paul George was the team's leading scorer and Frank Vogel was the coach. That Pacers team made it to the Eastern Conference finals, losing to the Miami Heat in six games.

Depth was already going to be a disadvantage for the Bucks with Giannis Antetokounmpo injured and Lillard limited. However, Indiana's bench unit made the difference in the game, bringing energy, keeping up the pace and scoring while Milwaukee had no answer.

Obi Toppin scored 21 points with eight rebounds while T.J. McConnell added 20, shooting 7-of-9 from the field with nine assists and four steals. By comparison, the Bucks only got 10 points from their reserves.

Coming into Game 6, McConnell was averaging 7.4 points during the postseason. However, he scored 10.6 points per game in the regular season and shot 41 percent on his 3-pointers, so a breakout like this was certainly possible. (Though he scored 20 or more points only four times this season.) And it came at an ideal time for the Pacers.

Toppin scored 10.6 per game prior to Game 6, close to his regular season average of 10.3 points. His 21 points were the fifth-highest total that the fourth-year pro had scored all season.

Indiana got 19 points from Pascal Siakam and Tyrese Haliburton scored 17. The Pacers also got solid contributions with Aaron Nesmith's 15 points and Andrew Nembhard's 14. But on this night, it was the Pacers' bench that shined.

While the Bucks weren't doing well on the court, Beverley was adding to their woes on the bench.

In the final minutes of the fourth quarter, Beverley was seen chucking a ball at multiple Pacers fans sitting behind the Milwaukee bench. He can likely expect some discipline from the NBA league office coming his way.

With the Bucks' season at stake, Lillard's availability was uncertain until right before game time. He and Antetokounmpo were listed as game-time decisions earlier Thursday, but Lillard had the more favorable prognosis.

Milwaukee's star point guard was listed as questionable for the game with the Achilles injury he aggravated in Game 3, while Antetokounmpo was doubtful with the calf strain that has sidelined him since April 9.

The Bucks did not hold a pregame shootaround for Game 6, but head coach Doc Rivers told reporters that both players "had great workouts."

It was a dramatic series for the Bucks, matching a dramatic regular season for a team that had justifiable championship hopes after trading for Lillard. It was hoped that Antetokounmpo would be able to return quickly after sitting out the final three games of the regular season, but Lillard was forced to lead the team without him.

That effort had an encouraging start with a blowout win in Game 1, but the situation became a nightmare when the Pacers took Games 2 and 3, with Lillard aggravating his injury in the latter. Indiana took Game 4 and was well-poised to close out the series, but the Bucks responded with a surprisingly dominant Game 5 win.

But the Bucks couldn't carry the momentum into Game 6. Now, a team that had championship aspirations with two of the NBA's biggest stars and Rivers under contract for three more seasons is left to consider what could have been had everyone been healthy.

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