In theory, it was supposed to be easy. In reality, there was nothing easy about it.
For the better part of three quarters, the NBA’s worst team gave the league’s best team all it wanted, if not more than it expected.
But in the final minutes, the Indiana Pacers did just enough to finally wear down the Milwaukee Bucks 101-96 on Thursday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Roy Hibbert scored 24 points, and Paul George and Lance Stephenson had 18 apiece to help the Pacers (44-13) avoid what would have been an embarrassing upset. They entered the night with NBA’s best record and a 1½-game lead on the Miami Heat for first place in the Eastern Conference.
By contrast, Milwaukee (11-45) has the league’s worst record and has four fewer wins than the NBA’s second-worst team, Philadelphia.
Yet for the final three quarters, the talent-challenged Bucks flirted with an upset.
Indiana raced to an 18-9 advantage and led 30-15 at the end of the first quarter. But a soft effort by the Pacers’ bench, coupled with a strong performance by Milwaukee’s reserves, resulted in a 50-all halftime tie.
Led by backups O.J. Mayo and Ramon Sessions, the Bucks outscored Indiana 35-20 in the second period. Mayo and Sessions scored 10 and nine points, respectively, in the quarter, as Milwaukee shot 61 percent from floor.
Milwaukee kept up the pressure in the third quarter, building a 60-54 lead at the 9:11 mark and maintaining a slight advantage for the next several minutes until the Pacers finally regained the edge — 67-66 — on a free throw by Evan Turner.
Indiana led 73-66 at the end of the third, but the Bucks still wouldn’t go away.
Although the Pacers never trailed again, Milwaukee remained within single digits the rest of the way. Indiana led 88-85 with 2:02 to play and didn’t comfortably pull away until Stephenson sank a 3-pointer with 25 seconds left, extending the advantage to 97-88.
Indiana’s win was its second in six nights against the Bucks. The Pacers earned an equally tough 110-100 win at Milwaukee on Feb. 22.
Indiana’s next game is Saturday at Boston. The Pacers return home Sunday against Utah.
Besides his game-high 24 points, Hibbert had a game-high 12 rebounds for his 14th double-double of the season. He also had two blocked shots.
Although the Pacers shot 51 percent from the field, Hibbert, George and Stephenson were the only Indiana players in double figures. David West, George Hill and C.J. Watson had nine points each. Hill left the game in the final two minutes with what appeared to be a left shoulder injury and did not return.
For Milwaukee, Brandon Knight had a team-high 23 points, and Khris Middleton had 22. Mayo finished with 14, and Sessions had 13.