MILWAUKEE — Last season was a lot of fun for the Indiana Pacers, who used a reliable formula in earning the Eastern Conference’s best record.
Things have been much different — and victories more rare — this season, as Indiana has battled through a rash of injuries while struggling to a 12-21 record.
Injuries, though, have created opportunity for others to step up and Friday night, it was point guard Donald Sloan’s turn with regulars George Hill and C.J. Watson out.
Sloan answered the call, finishing with 10 points, eight rebounds and six assists as the Pacers pulled away in the fourth quarter for a 94-91 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks at the Bradley Center.
“Combinations have been crazy this year but I said to the guys before the game, the next-man-up wins are more fun than regular wins,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “We have some guys out so you have to have that next-man-up mentality and some guys have to play more. That makes those wins more fun. They mean more, they’re more enjoyable … this is one of them.”
Sloan didn’t play in three of Indiana’s last four games and played just eight minutes in a 119-109 loss to Detroit Dec. 26. But on Friday, he didn’t show any signs of rust in 33 minutes of work.
“It’s very hard to go from not playing to starting and guarding the other team’s best player,” said Pacers center Roy Hibbert, who finished with 18 points and seven rebounds. “He did a hell of a job. He stepped up, he didn’t complain and he did his thing.”
Sloan spent most of the night matched up against Bucks point guard Brandon Knight, who led Milwaukee with 20 points on 9-for-19 shooting with seven assists and four steals.
The Bucks had five players score in double figures and both center Zaza Pachulia and forward John Henson finished with double-doubles, but they shot 42.7 percent as a team and went almost seven minutes without a basket late in the fourth quarter as the Pacers pulled ahead for good.
“The ball just stopped moving around, bodies stopped moving around,” Pachulia said. “I think we went more to isolation basketball and that’s not our game. That’s not how we play and that’s why we couldn’t score.”
Milwaukee led 68-66 after three but the Pacers opened the final quarter with a 15-8 run, capped off by 3-pointers from shooting guard C.J. Miles, who hit six from distance on the day and finished with a team-leading 22 points.
“Being able to step up and make shots like that, that’s the fun part,” Miles said. “One of those was kind of in transition and the other was nearing the end of the shot clock and I knew I was going to have to create something and I just took advantage of my height.”
Henson’s dunk with 7:43 to play made it a 78-76 game but the Bucks would come up empty on their next four possessions and managed just four free throws before Middleton scored on a put-back of Knight’s missed 3-pointer with 49.5 seconds to play.
“We had some great opportunities we normally make, we just didn’t make them tonight,” said Bucks coach Jason Kidd.
NOTES: Bucks C Larry Sanders remains unavailable for what head coach Jason Kidd called “personal reasons.” Sanders has missed Milwaukee’s last five games. Originally, the team said he was dealing with an illness but did not specify. Kidd said earlier in the week that Sanders, who was averaging 7.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 27 games, wouldn’t start when he returned, but he wouldn’t elaborate on the cause of Sanders’ absence. The fifth-year player is in the first year of a four-year, $44 million contract extension signed before the 2013-14 season. … Milwaukee will also be without F Ersan Ilyasova for the foreseeable future. He missed nine games because of a facial fracture and in his first game back suffered a concussion in the fourth quarter of a 108-101 loss to the Hornets. … Pacers PG George Hill did not play Friday because of a sore left groin. Backup PG C.J. Watson was a game-time decision with a sore left foot, leaving Donald Sloan as Indiana’s starter. … The Pacers have won three of their last four and five of their last seven. … Milwaukee has lost three consecutive home games.
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