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Giannis Antetokounmpo’s injury casts a shadow over the Milwaukee Bucks’ first-round pick

MILWAUKEE (AP) — The Milwaukee Bucks are once again dealing with injuries to key players during the playoffs. And Tyrese Haliburton and the Indiana Pacers stand in their way.

Milwaukee lost four of five regular-season games against Indiana, though they haven’t met in the last 3 1/2 months. The Bucks likely won’t have Giannis Antetokounmpo for the start of their first-round playoff series due to a left calf strain.

The 29-year-old Antetokounmpo has not been ruled out for Sunday’s Game 1, but the two-time MVP hasn’t practiced all week and missed Milwaukee’s final three regular-season games. Antetokounmpo averaged 42.2 points and 13 rebounds against Indiana this season, including a franchise-record 64 points in the Bucks’ lone win over the Pacers.

“I think the beauty of it is it’s not something unknown,” said Milwaukee’s Damian Lillard, who will play in Game 1 despite battling a sore adductor and an Achilles problem in the final weekend of the regular season. “We’ve had a few games where we’ve had too few players, and we kind of know what it’s going to look like for us.”

The Bucks had their top three players – Antetokounmpo, Lillard and Khris Middleton – all available for just five of their final 33 regular-season games. That helps explain why the Bucks went 17-19 under coach Doc Rivers after going 32-14 before his arrival.

The Bucks have encountered similar situations in previous postseasons.

Antetokounmpo missed the final 1 1/2 games of a 2020 second-round loss to Miami with a sprained ankle. He played the final two games of the 2021 Eastern Conference finals with a hyperextended knee before returning to lead Milwaukee to the title.

Middleton missed the Bucks’ final 10 playoff games in 2022 with a sprained medial collateral ligament. Last year, a bruised lower back knocked Antetokounmpo out of Game 1, causing him to miss the next two games in the Bucks’ first-round loss to Miami.

Indiana is in the playoffs for the first time since 2020 and is trying to advance past the first round for the first time since 2014. Although the Pacers are seeded sixth and the Bucks third in the East, Indiana is a slight favorite according to BetMGM. .

“I’m very grateful to be here,” said Haliburton, who is averaging 10.9 assists per game in the league this season. “Usually at this point I have my exit meetings and talk to you guys, a press conference to prepare for my vacation. So I’m just excited to play basketball. My plan is to keep playing in the coming months.”

THAT IS A LONG TIME AGO

The Bucks and Pacers last faced off on January 3. Both teams have changed quite a bit since then.

Since their last game, Indiana has acquired two-time All-Star Pascal Siakam, traded Bruce Brown and Buddy Hield and lost Bennedict Mathurin to a season-ending injury. Milwaukee fired coach Adrian Griffin, hired Rivers and acquired guard Pat Beverley.

“We’re basically two new teams playing against each other,” Middleton said.

HALIBURTON’S HOMECOMING

Haliburton makes its playoff debut close to home. Haliburton grew up in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, about 90 miles northwest of Milwaukee.

“I normally get about 80 to 90 tickets for this game, but that won’t happen for the playoffs,” Haliburton said. “Only my immediate family that I will buy tickets for.”

Haliburton averaged 28 points and nine assists against Milwaukee in the regular season.

BEASLEY’S BIG CONVERSATION

When asked about Milwaukee’s 1-4 record against Indiana during a January interview with Bleacher Report, Bucks guard Malik Beasley predicted they would meet again in the playoffs and that “it’s not going to be pretty” for the Pacers .

Beasley doesn’t shy away from these comments.

“I still stand by that,” Beasley said. “Kudos to them if things go differently, but I don’t see that happening.”

MAINTAIN PACE

Indiana has scored a league-high 123.3 points per game this season, hampering the Bucks with their fast-paced offense. The Bucks have played better defense under Rivers, but it remains to be seen if they are better equipped to handle Indiana’s pace.

“I think there is a transition defense, and there is a transition defense against the Indiana Pacers,” Haliburton said. “I think it’s a little different.”

The Bucks prepared for this series by having their scout team play as quickly as possible.

“If we score a bucket on the play, they take the ball out of the basket and they don’t even get in,” Bucks center Brook Lopez said. ‘They just go. That’s not something we’ve done before with a scout team to prepare for a playoff series.”

Budding rivalry?

Haliburton mimicked Lillard’s “Dame Time” celebration by pointing to his wrist during Indiana’s victory over the Bucks in the In-Season Tournament. Antetokounmpo’s 64-point performance against the Pacers included a post-game confrontation over the whereabouts of the game ball.

These events provide many interesting angles for this series.

“Obviously the storyline is still popcorn driven,” Bucks forward Bobby Portis said. “You can smell it.”

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AP Sports Writer Michael Marot contributed to this report.

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