For the past few years, the Indiana Pacers have not exactly been rich with intense and tightly-contested rivalries.
In the 90s, Indiana went back and forth with the Patrick Ewing New York Knicks and the Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls, with MJ and company always getting the best of them.
In the 2000s, the rivalry shifted to the Detroit Pistons, which spurned from a tightly-contested six-game Detroit win in the 2004 Eastern Conference Finals and the Malice at the Palace the following season, a brawl that is still recognized as the biggest and by far the most consequential in league history, with it directly leading to the Pacers being taken out of the title hunt that season in a year where they were favored to win it all.
Going to the 2010s, Indiana's rivalries weren't necessarily with any one team, but rather with a whole player. For five years in the span from 2012 to 2018, Indiana matched up with the LeBron James-led Miami Heat from 2012 to 2014, and with his very own Cleveland Cavaliers from 2017 to 2018.
Even in these rivalries, James and company always got the best of Indiana, with the Heat and Cavs winning every single encounter.
Now, however, it seems like the Pacers finally have their new legitimate rivalry of the post-Paul George era, with Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks stepping up to the plate in their latest quarrels with the Pacers.
Before this season, any talks of a rivalry between the Pacers and Bucks would be laughed at, with the Bucks going 2-11 in the 13 matchups between the two teams from 2020 onward prior to the 2023-24 season.
It seems as if the new season has brought some changes, with the Pacers currently up 2-1 in the season series against Milwaukee and there being some serious tension between these two teams and fanbases.
If there was any underlying tension between these teams at the time, it wasn't particularly felt in their November 9 matchup at Gainsbridge Fieldhouse. Wearing their rather bold City Edition jerseys, Indiana scratched back from a rather large Bucks lead in the fourth quarter to win the game 126-124 thanks to some late-game heroics piloted by Bennedict Mathurin and Tyrese Haliburton.
Other than complaining about a lack of Damian Lillard, Bucks fans and Pacers fans didn't have much to argue about on this night. That would be soon to change, though.
A little less than a month later, on December 7, Indiana faced Milwaukee once again, but this time with higher stakes. Instead of playing on their home floor, neither Indiana nor Milwaukee were given home-court advantage, as this game occurred under the bright lights of the inaugural In-Season Tournament in the semifinal game, which was held in Las Vegas.
In this game, despite 37 points from Giannis Antetokounmpo, Indiana still prevailed thanks to some clutch heroics by Tyrese Haliburton, a bit of a common factor that is being put into place here.
However, this incident was not as well known for the shot as it was for what occurred after it. Following a deep three to put the Pacers lead at eight and more or less put the game away, Tyrese Haliburton displayed some of his cocky side. He did this by looking at his wrist and stating, "I know what time it is," in reference to Damian Lillard and his signature "Dame Time" celebration.
This seemed rather boisterous for Haliburton, who, prior to this, was not necessarily known as a big trash talker, usually celebrating big shots and moments with a skipping motion rather than directly mocking an opposing player.
Following this moment and the Pacers' eventual win to advance to the tournament finals, the buzz around this particular moment was so high that Damian Lillard himself felt the need to respond.
In the post-game presser, Lillard, who struggled for most of the game, scoring 24 points on 7/20 shooting compared to Haliburton's 27 points on 11/19 shooting, stated that he respected Haliburton for his gesture following the shot, but also added on some advice to the youngster, telling him to remain humble when he's having his moments because he never knows when they will end.
This was the first semblance of a possible rivalry between these teams, as Pacers and Bucks fans were eagerly anticipating the next time these two teams would face each other, which was three more times in the next month at that time.
With this being said, the stage was set for the Pacers and Bucks to face off on December 13. While it was initially a close contest, there were plenty of feelings of animosity in the game, especially from Bucks color commentator Marques Johnson.
Despite praising Haliburton, a Wisconsin native, prior to the game, Johnson let loose on the point guard, calling him a "wannabe superstar" in somewhat of a call back to Wally Szczerbiak's antics towards Haliburton during the Pacers/Knicks matchups of the previous season.
In addition to this slight, Johnson also cited Haliburton as "one of the best floppers in the league," a moniker that many saw as ironic due to Giannis Antetokounmpo's tendency to get to the free throw line far more than Haliburton, who is currently ranked 34th in free throw attempts per game, compared to Antetokounmpo, who ranks second in the entire league, trailing only Joel Embiid.
Surprisingly, this would not be the end of the ordeal. Despite a lopsided Bucks victory and a career-high and franchise-record 64 points from Giannis Antetokounmpo, there was still some drama to be had, and it was centered around a game ball.
Long story short, Antetokounmpo was upset because the Pacers supposedly stole his 64-point game ball, proceeding to get into an argument with Tyrese Haliburton and Pacers assistant coach Lloyd Pierce after returning from the Bucks locker room.
This was inexplicably followed by Antetokounmpo and some Bucks teammates storming the Pacers locker room in search of the supposedly stolen ball, in an incident captured on video footage where several players on both teams could be seen arguing over the ball, with Buddy Hield even saying "Keep that ball," to his teammates, who were a mix of adamant, confused, and judging by Ben Sheppard's reaction, amused even.
Later on, it was revealed that Indiana never had the game ball in the first place and instead was given a reserve ball to give to Oscar Tshiebwe to celebrate his first career points in garbage time, a tradition that Indiana has done for a while, going back to last season and Gabe York getting the ball for his first points in the NBA.
In addition, Rick Carlisle noted that during the scuffle, an unnamed Bucks player threw an errant elbow at Pacers general manager Chad Buchanan, which potentially bruised his rib.
Needless to say, this ordeal had plenty of Pacers and Bucks fans feeling some type of way, with Bucks fans chastising the Pacers for keeping the game ball and refusing to return it, and Pacers fans stating that they never had the ball in the first place.
The incident gained so much traction in fact, that the Toronto Raptors were also making fun of it when they decided to give Dennis Schroder the game ball for reaching 10,000 points, with some players being heard joking about the Bucks ordeal in the background, including Schroder himself.
With the Pacers playing the Bucks two more times starting New Year's Day, some Pacers fans took to social media to express their desire for Indiana to pick up an enforcer, with former Pacer and noted tough guy around the league James Johnson being penciled in as a possible choice.
In this case, it was "ask, and you shall receive" for Pacers fans, who were granted their wish when the very next day, Johnson was signed to the Pacers for the rest of the season, providing veteran toughness, locker room leadership, and most importantly, an enforcer to protect Indiana's best players, most notably Haliburton.
The signing of Johnson comes at an opportune time, with Indiana lacking some veteran enforcer leadership, with their oldest players being mostly guards and no true tough guy on the team. Surely, team president Kevin Pritchard noticed the ordeal on Wednesday and called for Johnson to add extra reinforcements to the team to prepare for the next two Bucks matchups.
With all these antics going down ever since the tournament game, many are quick to name this a full-on rivalry between the Pacers and the Bucks. For two teams that have little to no history with each other apart from being in the same division, this could be great for both sides.
The In-Season Tournament was designed to make regular season games more exciting and mean something, and by this logic, it certainly achieved that, as Pacers and Bucks fans are fully in on this potential rivalry, as are the rest of the league's fans.
If there are talks of a potential rivalry brewing, the Pacers and Bucks social media teams are not doing much to calm down talks, with Indiana posting a small feature on Oscar Tshiebwe following the game after the entire story came to light.
In hilarious and extremely petty fashion, the Milwaukee Bucks responded the next day with a picture of Antetokounmpo holding a basketball, which many in the replies were quick to joke about and catch on to the reference.
Jokes aside, a small market rivalry is exactly what the NBA needs. With older rivalries around the league dying down and new blood being injected, perhaps it is time for two teams that have not gotten much media attention in their timeline to be put up head-to-head against one another on the big stage, as some fans are clamoring for the NBA to do.
Only time will tell if Indiana and Milwaukee keep their potential rivalry going, with Indiana either turning the tides in their favor to get some more wins and win the season series against the Bucks after going up 2-0 in the first game or Milwaukee completely taking over after Antetokounmpo's 64-point night and post-game anger.
One thing is for sure, though: This is exactly what Pacers fans have been wanting for the longest time. Their team is the most relevant it's been in years, and now they are entering a rivalry with arguably the best player in the league and his team.