LAS VEGAS — Game recognizes game.
If the Milwaukee Bucks couldn't see it or feel it, it was confirmed by Indiana Pacers star-in-the-making Tyrese Haliburton, making the "Dame Time" gesture in the waning moments of the NBA in-season tournament semifinal.
Not only have the Pacers put out the two powers in the conference with the IST stakes, they're making an announcement they have to be reckoned with, and they're not doing it quietly. Boston and Milwaukee are the first ones put on notice, but won't be the last.
Damian Lillard kinda tipped his cap to Haliburton, having originated the celebration and given it to plenty through the years, from the stars to the role players.
“When you dish it out, you gotta be willing to take it,” Lillard said. “And for as many times as I’ve done it to people, you know, I can’t be upset when somebody else does it.”
Haliburton is going on a tour through the Eastern powers that would make Usher blush, refusing to commit a turnover Thursday … or Monday … to go along with 53 points and 28 assists during that span.
Haliburton’s ascension into the top of the food chain at the position gives him all the confidence to gloat just a bit. Lillard’s nod came with a bit of a caveat in the same comment, though.
“When you’re having your moment, it’s important to be careful. Be humble,” Lillard said. “When you’re having your moments, you never know how the tables turn or when they’re gonna turn. I respected it. We shook hands after the game. I wasn’t moved left or right.”
Could this be the opening stanza of a rivalry? It's been a while since a team of youth has come at the grill of the establishment. And despite Lillard being new to the Bucks, they are indeed that.
Winning a championship and employing a two-time MVP will put a target on a franchise’s back. It’s a position the Bucks should relish, given it signals respect league-wide, and for the Pacers it means a return to relevancy for the first time in about a decade.
The Pacers are new blood and Bucks, the old guard.
“If I saw Dame and Giannis and Khris [Middleton] and Brook [Lopez] on the other team, I’m coming for them, too,” Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “You want to aim and play your best against the best. They played well, they played really well. They beat us twice, they beat Boston. They play a lot of small ball, they play fast.”
Lillard missed the first matchup when Haliburton ran wild all over the Bucks, but the Pacers withstood a season-high 54-point barrage from Antetokounmpo in early November. Antetokounmpo was again a wrecking ball in the IST semifinal, scoring 37 with 10 rebounds. For what this tournament represents, creating new rivalries is an expected goal.
And considering what the Bucks should know about themselves relative to the Pacers, the roles are a bit reversed to this point. The Pacers know they’re getting it up the floor early and often, daring you to keep up.
The Bucks, for their 50-win seasons and success starting in the 2018-19 season when they brought in Mike Budenholzer, are still learning themselves. Their late-game mistakes and turnovers were notable, intercepted passes near halfcourt that led to runout opportunities for the Pacers and ultimately, a chance to put real distance between the two in the final five minutes.
“We have to be more organized. I feel like sometimes we’re not organized at all,” Antetokounmpo said. "We don’t know what we’re trying to get from our offense. Or sometimes we sprint back on defense and allow them to shoot a lot of early 3s. We have to know where the ball is. We gave up dunks and early 3s.”
Not having Jrue Holiday at the top of the defense has been an adjustment, as well as Middleton still recovering from offseason knee surgery. It's no time to ring the alarm, but it is a concern for Antetokounmpo that they didn't fully respond to the challenge of a team coming at them.
He pointed to a lack of practice time and not knowing where guys want the ball at crucial moments, but they’re good enough to withstand such variables in the meantime.
“We gotta want it. Nobody’s going to give you nothing,” Antetokounmpo said. “Like sometimes I feel like we expect just because we have great players out there, that is Haliburton or Myles Turner or [Aaron] Nesmith, Buddy Hield will just give us the game. No, we have to be better. We have to go out there and take it.”
And since they didn’t, the Pacers snatched the game out of their hands and aren’t afraid to try it again.