Milwaukee Bucks coach Doc Rivers instructs his team during the...

Milwaukee Bucks coach Doc Rivers instructs his team during the second half of his team's NBA basketball game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Friday, April 12, 2024, in Oklahoma City. Credit: AP/Nate Billings

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

Milwaukee lost four of five regular-season games against Indiana, though they haven’t met in the last 3½ months. The Bucks likely won’t have Giannis Antetokounmpo for the start of their first-round playoff series because of a strained left calf.

The 29-year-old Antetokounmpo was listed as doubtful for Sunday's Game 1 on an injury report that came out Saturday. Antetokounmpo averaged 42.2 points and 13 rebounds against Indiana this season, including a franchise-record 64 points in the Bucks’ lone victory over the Pacers.

“I think the good part about it is it’s not something that’s unfamiliar,” said Milwaukee’s Damian Lillard, who will play in Game 1 despite battling a sore adductor and an Achilles tendon issue the final weekend of the regular season. “We’ve had our stretches of games where we’ve been short-handed, and we kind of know what it’s going to look like for us out there.”

Indeed, the Bucks had their top three players – Antetokounmpo, Lillard and Khris Middleton – all available for only five of their last 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 1½ games of a 2020 second-round loss to Miami with a sprained ankle. He sat out the final two games of the 2021 Eastern Conference finals with a hyperextended knee before returning to lead Milwaukee to the title.

Indiana Pacers' Tyrese Haliburton, front left, looks to pass the...

Indiana Pacers' Tyrese Haliburton, front left, looks to pass the ball as Cleveland Cavaliers' Caris LeVert, third from right, and Evan Mobley (4) defend during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Cleveland, Friday, April 12, 2024. Credit: AP/Phil Long

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 and caused 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 attempting to advance beyond the first round for the first time since 2014. Even though the Pacers are seeded sixth and the Bucks third in the East, Indiana is a slight favorite, according to BetMGM.

“I’m really thankful to be here,” said Haliburton, who averaged a league-leading 10.9 assists per game this season. “Usually at this point, I’m getting my exit meetings and talking to you guys, a news conference to get ready for my vacation. So I’m just excited to be playing basketball. My plan is to keep playing for the next couple of months.”

LONG TIME, NO SEE

Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo sits on the court during the...

Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo sits on the court during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Boston Celtics Tuesday, April 9, 2024, in Milwaukee. Giannis Antetokounmpo left the game. The Bucks won 104-91. Credit: AP/Morry Gash

The Bucks and Pacers last faced each other on Jan. 3. Both teams have changed quite a bit since.

Since their last matchup, 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 kind of two new teams playing against each other,” Middleton said.

HALIBURTON’S HOMECOMING

Haliburton is making his playoff debut close to home. Haliburton grew up in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, about 90 miles northwest of Milwaukee.

“Usually I’m getting like 80-90 tickets for this game, but that will not be happening for the playoffs,” Haliburton said. “Just my immediate family I’ll be getting tickets for.”

Haliburton averaged 27 points and 11 assists against Milwaukee in the regular season.

BEASLEY’S BIG TALK

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

Beasley isn’t backing down from those comments.

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

KEEPING PACE

Indiana scored a league-high 123.3 points per game this season, and it bothered the Bucks with its fast-paced offense. The Bucks have played better defense under Rivers, but it remains to be seen whether they’re better equipped to handle Indiana’s tempo.

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

The Bucks prepared for this series by having their scout team play as fast a pace as possible.

“If we score a bucket when we’re playing, they’re taking the ball out of the basket and not even inbounding,” Bucks center Brook Lopez said. “They’re just going. That’s not something we’ve done before with a scout team in preparation for a playoff series.”

BUDDING RIVALRY?

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

Those events provide plenty of interesting angles heading into this series.

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

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This story has been corrected to show that Tyrese Haliburton averaged 27 points and 11 assists against the Bucks in the regular season.

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AP Sports Writer Michael Marot contributed to this report.

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