Almost Upset: Bucks-Pacers 2000
In terms of modern NBA choke jobs, this series doesn’t come up at all. In terms of Reggie Miller’s greatest playoff performances, this series doesn’t come up at all either
But that’s why there’s ProHoopsHistory! Bringing back the greatest hits that time forgot, like the number eight seed Milwaukee Bucks coming thiiiiiis close to upsetting the Indiana Pacers in 2000.
GOT TO GET OVER THE HUMP
We’ve seen the Pacers before here in Almost Upset. On those occasions they were underdogs in 1987 vs. the Hawks and in 1991 to the Celtics. Over the course of the late 1980s and 1990s team evolved from one centered around Chuck Person with Reggie Miller as the ascendant co-star to a team firmly planted around Miller.
The results were amazing, but not solely because of Miller.
As we’ve also discussed before, the Pacers swapped out offensively oriented players like Detlef Schrempf and Micheal Williams in favor of more defensive-minded ones like Dale Davis, Derrick McKey, and Antonio Davis.
After several years of hovering around .500 the Pacers hired Larry Brown as coach and broke through in the 1993-94 season. Their 47 wins were certainly good, but not something that screams, “title contender.” However, it was their best regular season since 1973 when they won 51 games and ultimately captured the ABA title.
In the 1994 playoffs, Indiana easily swept the Orlando Magic in the first round, upset the 57-win Atlanta Hawks in the semi-finals, and took the 57-win New York Knicks to seven games in the conference finals. The Pacers lost the seventh game on the road, 94-90.
Thus commenced Indiana’s silver age—the golden age obviously being their three titles in four years in the ABA.
In 1995, the Pacers upped the win total to 52 games, swept the Hawks in the first round, beat the Knicks in seven games in the semi-finals, and then lost to the Magic in seven games in the conference finals.
The silver age hit a couple bumps, though. In 1996, the Pacers won 52 games again, but lost to the Hawks in the first round. In 1997, they regressed to 39 wins and missed the playoffs entirely.
Larry Brown had been around four seasons (an eternity for him) and left the Pacers to coach the Philadelphia 76ers. In came Larry Bird as his replacement.
Along with a new coach, the Pacers also boasted a roster more powerful than ever. In addition to Miller, Rik Smits, the Davises, McKey, and Mark Jackson, the team in the preceding couple of seasons had acquired Chris Mullin and Jalen Rose while drafting Travis Best and Austin Croshere.
The roster in 1998 held 11 legitimate NBA players and only Miller averaged over 30 minutes a game. Indiana won a franchise record 58 games that season and once more reached the conference finals, where they were defeated by the Chicago Bulls. In seven games, of course.
During the lockout shortened 1999 season, Indiana won 33 games (equivalent to 54 games in a full regular season) and again reached the conference finals. This time they at least lost in six games (not seven) to the Knicks to shake things up.
So, if you’re keeping track, that’s FOUR loses in the conference finals in six seasons.
Entering the 2000 season, Miller was now 34 years old. As was Jackson. Smits and McKey were 33. Mullin had already aged out of usefulness at 36 years of age. Simply put, Indiana’s title window was closing, but there were a couple things keeping it propped open.
Jalen Rose was now in his prime and was made a starter this year. He responded by averaging 18.2 PPG to just lead the team over Miller’s 18.1 PPG. Croshere also had emerged as a key bench player as had Best. And let’s not forget Indiana had acquired the legendary Sam Perkins. Sure he was 38 now, but Big Smooth helped every team he was ever on.
The results were 56 wins for Indiana and the #1 overall seed in the Eastern Conference. In the conference finals, the Pacers would finally get over the hump ousting the Knicks in six games.
In the NBA Finals, they met the Los Angeles Lakers losing six hard-fought games. The Lakers rightfully won, but it was a closer series than remembered with the overtime Game 4 being the pivotal contest to sway the series in LA’s favor.
However, the Pacers nearly came up with the biggest choke in franchise history during the 2000 first round when the Milwaukee Bucks almost upset them. Although barely qualifying for the playoffs, the Bucks were a pain in the ass waiting to happen for the Pacers.
BACK INTO THE GROOVE
The Pacers had struggled for two decades to achieve title contender status that had eluded them since joining the NBA in 1976.
For the Milwaukee Bucks, they essentially entered the NBA as title contenders. After just 27 wins during their inaugural season of 1968-69, the Bucks got their hands on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bob Dandridge in the 1969 draft. Unsurprisingly they shot up to 56 wins in 1970. Then they traded for Oscar Robertson during the 1970 offseason leading to 66 wins and the NBA title in 1971.
There was some mild turbulence in the mid-1970s after Robertson retired in 1974, Abdul-Jabbar was traded in 1975, and Dandridge left as a free agent in 1977. But the worst Milwaukee got was 30 wins. The other “bad” years never saw them go below 38 wins.
And in the 1977 draft, the Bucks got their hands on Marques Johnson (and also wasted a pick on Kent Benson. Can’t win them all folks!). Sidney Moncrief came aboard in 1979 and the Bucks were again a bona fide contender. Milwaukee made the playoffs every year between 1980 and 1991 achieving conference finals status three times.
It’s hard to find a more sterling franchise between 1970 and 1990 than the Bucks. They had just three coaches during the entire span (Larry Costello, Don Nelson, and Del Harris), all of them worthy of the Hall of Fame.
Executives like Wayne Embry personified stellar leadership from the front office, constantly fielding at least a competent team and usually a contending one. It was just an endless cavalcade of legendary players already listed plus really good and great ones like Jon McGlocklin, Paul Pressey, and Terry Cummings.
So, the 1990s were a fucking disaster for the Bucks.
After 48 wins in 1991, the Bucks collapsed to 28 wins in 1992, the worst season in franchise history since their expansion year. Coaching and personnel moves were entrusted in Mike Dunleavy and that did not work out folks. In 1993, they bottomed out at 20 wins. And there in the bottom they stayed vacillating between bad and mediocre until 1998.
The good news with all this losing was that the Bucks got high draft picks. You can’t mess them all up.
With the first overall pick in 1994, they drafted Glenn Robinson. In 1996 they drafted Stephon Marbury… and wisely traded him to Minnesota for the draft rights to Ray Allen.
The Bucks had a third splendid draft in 1993 with Vin Baker, but traded him to Seattle in 1997. The massive three-team trade involving Baker netted Milwaukee one Terrell Brandon, but in the spring of 1999 Milwaukee traded in Brandon for the final member of their impending Big Three: Sam Cassell.
The 1999 Bucks under coach George Karl won 28 games (equivalent to 46 wins) and were finally back in the playoffs. In the first round they lost to… the Indiana Pacers… in a sweep.
The 2000 Bucks came back with only 42 wins needing an 8-2 sprint down the stretch run of the season to finish one game ahead of the Orlando Magic for the final playoff spot in the East.
Anyhoo, besides the Big Three, the Bucks boasted Ervin Johnson at center and Darvin Ham at power forward. Off the bench Milwaukee tossed in Tim Thomas, Vinny Del Negro, and Scott Williams. It was a potent eight-man rotation that focused most of the scoring duties on Allen, Robinson, Cassell, and Thomas, while Ham, Johnson, and Williams helped out with some defensive mettle and hustle.
Much to Indiana’s chagrin it was a potent mix despite the low win total.
This was one of them yucky late 90s, early 00s NBA games. Milwaukee shot only 36.1% while Indiana wasn’t far off with 37.2%.
Ray Allen was the Bucks’ best performer with 26 points and seven rebounds on 9-22 FGs. Cassell and Robinson had a combined 29 points on 34 FGAs. Off the bench Scott Williams gave a modest preview of bigger games to come with six points and six boards plus four blocks in just under 20 minutes.
For Indiana, Rose was the outstanding player with 26 points on 10-21 FGs including three three-pointers. Dale Davis was also highly effective with 12 points, 17 rebounds, and four blocks. Unfortunately for the Pacers, Miller was a dud. Sure he had 21 points, but he shot 5-18 from the field. Going 10-12 from the free throw line salvaged some modicum of usefulness, but it was an ugly game for nearly all involved.
Naturally, it was the two youthful wingmen in the fourth quarter who came to ball. Allen had 10 points on 3-6 FGs while Rose had 12 points including all three of his threes.
Thanks to an extra boost from Travis Best off the bench in the period ( six points, 3-4 FGs), the Pacers won the quarter 26-23. That three-point margin was the difference in the final score.
The Bucks were itching to play another game immediately having felt this contest was theirs for the taking. “We know we can beat this club. We were two stops away from winning it tonight. We’ll just have to see Thursday what we can do differently,” Cassell boasted.
Coach Karl likened Game 1 to a cocktail party and now that “introductions” were over the Bucks needed “to start playing.” Larry Bird, although a coach, was still in the habit of trash-talking. “I never got up in the morning worrying about what George Karl said. Never have and never will.”
The biggest gripe from Milwaukee was the long lay off (four days) between Games 1 and 2.
Well, so much for that rest advantage for the elderly Pacers. Milwaukee smacked the taste out they mouth.
After 36% shooting in Game 1, the Bucks shot a scorching 53.2% in this game, while Indiana remained stagnant with a barely improved 38.8%.
And again, this was an ass-whoopin’. The Bucks held a 23-point halftime lead. Only a garbage time rally in the fourth quarter by Indiana made the final score look deceptively respectable.
Allen and Cassell each had 20 points, while Tim Thomas swooped in off the bench for 19 points. Williams scored 15 in just 18 minutes of play. Robinson had only 11 points, but he shot 5-9 and didn’t need a big game when the whole team was just vibin’.
For Indiana, Miller’s struggles continued (10 points, 4-12 FGs) and Rose left his shot in Game 1 (11 points, 4-13 FGs). At least Croshere got some buckets this game after going scoreless in Game 1. He had 16 points on 5-8 shooting. About the only positive light for Indiana in this game.
Lookie here, Indiana returns the double-digit victory favor. Although the final margin of victory was the same, this contest was much tighter than Game 2. In fact, Milwaukee had a seven-point halftime lead.
A lot of that was thanks to the Big Dog hitting on six of his eight field goal attempts in the first quarter. In the second quarter Allen took over scoring 11 points on 4-6 shooting.
Indiana remained in striking distance courtesy of Miller’s 15 points in the first half.
With 8:54 remaining the third quarter, Milwaukee looked on the verge of snuffing out the Pacers. Darvin Ham made a monstrous chase down block to prevent Mark Jackson from getting a lay up. The Bucks retrieved the ball and turned it into a Robinson three-pointer. Their lead stood at 67-57.
About two minutes later, Allen hit an off-balance jumper as the shot clock went off. It was a rainbow swish. With seven minutes left in the third, Milwaukee now held a 71-59 lead.
A Miller three-pointer with about 6:30 left in the third began Indiana’s triumphant comeback. Indeed, Miller personally went on 12-3 run sparked by that jumper. Rose ended Miller’s personal run when he hit a jumper. His bucket put the Pacers up, 74-73.
It’d obviously get worse for Milwaukee. I mean they did from up 71-59 to losing 109-96. That's a 50-25 extended run for Indiana.
This vicious Croshere dunk sums up the rest of the game for the Bucks and Pacers, respectively.
Well, the Bucks didn’t linger too much on their Game 3 collapse and came ready to beat the snot outta the Pacers again.
Every quarter brought new Bucks ready to continue the beat down. Allen came out hot with 12 points in the 1st quarter on 5-7 shooting. Robinson wasn’t far behind: nine points on 4-5 FGs. As a team, the Bucks shot 68% in the quarter and busted Indiana something fierce holding a 33-21 lead at the end of the period.
The situation further deteriorated for the Pacers in the 2nd quarter: Milwaukee outscored them 31-16.
This time around, though, it was the bench trio of Williams, Del Negro, and Thomas that did the Pacers in. Williams had eight points; Del Negro had four points and four assists; and Thomas had nine points. Combined they shot 10-13 from the field in the ass-kickin’ quarter.
The Pacers finally drew even with the Bucks in the third period (25-24), but edging Milwaukee by a point when you’re down 27 at the half ain’t gonna cut it. At least Indiana won the garbage time fourth quarter, 25-12.
Coach Karl credited passing for the victory.
“I’ve said, ‘Trust the pass, believe in the pass, you’ve got to believe in the pass,’ four million different ways this year,” Karl told the Wisconsin State Journal. “Tonight, I think we believed in it.”
The assists numbers compiled by Jason Wilde of the State Journal tell the tale. Milwaukee had 11 dimes in the first quarter, 20 by halftime, and 29 for the game. In their Game 1 loss, the Bucks had just 11 assists and in their Game 3 loss, only seven assists in their second half collapse.
Well the dimes didn’t flow so easy for Milwaukee in this game, but the bigger problem was free throws.
Oh, the Bucks shot them extremely well for the game: 21-25 for an 84% conversion rate. Outstanding.
Except when they needed to miss one they couldn’t.
Down 96-94 with five seconds left, the Bucks’ Ervin Johnson missed the first of two free throws prompting Coach Karl to signal for an intentional miss on the second attempt. The miss would give Milwaukee a chance at the offensive rebound and a putback to tie the game.
Well, Johnson apparently never got the message. He shot the free throw normally and swished the bastard.
Out of options, the Bucks fouled Indiana’s Rose. And then he subsequently missed both his free throws giving Milwaukee one final chance at a miracle with 1.1 seconds remaining.
No miracles, though. Ray Allen’s 30-foot three-point attempt hit the top of the backboard and that was that.
But hey there was a whole game of sensational action before the wacky sax finish!
It doesn’t get talked about much, but this was one of Reggie Miller’s best playoff performances. Mr. Potato Head made up for a generally underwhelming series by scoring 41 points on 15-25 FGs. He saved 18 of those buckets for the final period.
Meanwhile for Milwaukee, Allen and Robinson were atrocious. 10-37 shooting for the two All-Stars.
The Bucks nonetheless stayed in the game thanks to Tim Thomas scoring 19 points on 8-16 FGs and Sam Cassell scoring 22 points on 9-17 FGs. Cassell was particularly active in the second half where he scored 14 points.
With the tight contest coming down the stretch, Miller was on an absolute rampage. The playoff-tested Cassell was able to brush back the assault by swishing a midrange jumper giving the Bucks a 92-89 lead with 3:05 remaining.
Then on the next offensive possession for Milwaukee, Cassell fouled out. Driving on Derrick McKey, Cassell used his off-arm to create room. The push off wasn’t much of a foul, but he did it right in front of the ref. And there’s no doubt he did push off. You’d like to complain and tell the ref to let it go, but Cassell put himself in the bind.
Anyhoo, that’s the heave-ho for Sam I Am.
Miller then proceeded to make a three-pointer over Thomas to give Indiana a 93-92 lead with about 90 seconds left setting up the free throw hijinks we’ve discussed above.
Tough way for Milwaukee to go out.
The Pacers would continue on a rough playoff road. In the semi-finals, they beat Philadelphia, 4-2. In the conference finals, they beat New York, 4-2. In the NBA Finals they lost to Los Angeles, 4-2. As aforementioned, the Pacers gave the Lakers a truly hard-fought series unlike the 76ers and Nets in subsequent years.
Speaking of the 76ers, they’d go on to represent the East in the 2001 Finals only after ousting the Bucks in seven games in the conference finals. It was another heartbreak classic for Milwaukee. They’d won 52 games in the regular season—the most for the franchise between 1986 and 2019. Unsurprisingly, it was their only conference finals appearance in that same interval.
The Bucks followed up their near-Finals appearance by stooping to mediocrity. Over the next three seasons they won 41, 42, and 41 games respectively. By the offseason of 2004, Robinson, Allen, and Cassell were all gone and the Bucks embarked on a looooooong rebuild that really never ended until the arrival of Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Shockingly, the Pacers (the much older of the two teams in 2000) had already undergone a full rebuild. While the Bucks were scrounging together 41 wins a year like getting pocket change from the couch cushions, the Pacers won 61 games in 2004 (a franchise record) and made the conference finals again.
However, the Pacers did have to rebuild and we’ll be seeing them again in Almost Upset for the fourth time. Ah well, at least we’re finally done with Larry Bird.