Giannis Antetokounmpo set a new career high for points in the Milwaukee Bucks’ 140-126 home win over the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday, but his determined quest to obtain the game ball sparked an extended postgame argument between the two teams that carried over into Fiserv Forum’s back hallways.
The two-time NBA MVP poured in 64 points in 37 minutes, surpassing Milwaukee’s franchise record of 57 points, which was set by Michael Redd in 2006. Antetokounmpo also topped his previous career high of 55 points, which he set in January against the Washington Wizards, and registered the first 60-point game by any NBA player this season.
But the record-setting occasion ended in unusual fashion when the Pacers attempted to acquire the game ball for rookie forward Oscar Tshiebwe, who scored the first point of his career when he hit a free throw with 2:42 remaining.
This prompted a furious reaction from Antetokounmpo, who confronted members of the Pacers on the court and briefly had to be restrained by Bucks employees. Antetokounmpo later sprinted toward the tunnel in an effort to track down the ball. A confrontation ensued between members of the Bucks and Pacers in the back hallway, and Antetokounmpo returned to the court to exchange more words with Indiana star Tyrese Haliburton and assistant coach Lloyd Pierce. A ball was eventually acquired for Antetokounmpo, though he questioned its authenticity.
“I have a ball, but I don’t know if it’s the game ball,” Antetokounmpo said. “It doesn’t feel like the game ball to me. It feels like a brand new ball. I can tell — I played, what, 35 minutes today. I know how the game ball felt. The ball that I have, which I’ll take and give to my mom, for sure, I don’t know if it’s actually the game ball. It’s okay. Life will continue. … I’ve never seen this [situation] before. I knew [the Pacers] had the game ball. I don’t know how it works, but I assume I can’t just walk into any arena and just take the ball.”
Coaches and players regularly secure the game ball as a memento of a milestone, a debut or an otherwise noteworthy performance. In recent years, teams have taken to sharing video of the postgame presentation of a game ball to a player or coach on social media to further celebrate accomplishments. Typically, each NBA game has two balls: the main ball and an alternate.
Pacers Coach Rick Carlisle confirmed that his team had attempted to collect the game ball for the 24-year-old Tshiebwe, who was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, spent a four-year college career at West Virginia and Kentucky and then signed a two-way contract with Indiana this past summer after going undrafted. While Tshiebwe played for the Pacers and scored one point in Saturday’s in-season tournament championship game against the Los Angeles Lakers, stats from that game did not count. Wednesday’s game against the Bucks therefore represented Tshiebwe’s official debut.
“It was Oscar Tshiebwe’s first official NBA point, so we always get the game ball,” Carlisle said. “We were not thinking about Giannis’s franchise record, so we grabbed the ball. A couple of minutes later, several of their players ended up in our hallway and there was a big — I don’t know what to call it — a fracas or melee or whatever. I don’t think any punches were landed, but my general manager [Chad Buchanan] got elbowed in the ribs by one of their players. He certainly has a bruised rib, and who knows if it’s anything more than that. Unfortunate situation.”
The Bucks entered Wednesday seeking revenge for their loss to the Pacers in last Thursday’s in-season tournament semifinal, which saw Haliburton co-opt Damian Lillard’s “Dame Time” celebration. After the game, Lillard said Haliburton needed to “be humble.” Carlisle acknowledged there was “heated competition” during the third meeting between the Central Division rivals in a little more than a month.
Milwaukee initially pulled Antetokounmpo from the game with a 19-point lead with 3:24 remaining, but Indiana’s bench players went on a 9-0 run to force Bucks Coach Adrian Griffin to put Antetokounmpo back in the game with 2:04 remaining.
Antetokounmpo, who had 58 points when he was pulled initially, then played the rest of the way and added on six more points, including a dunk with 26 seconds left that pushed Milwaukee’s lead back to 16 points. The seven-time all-star shot 20 for 28 from the field, 0 for 3 from three-point range and 24 for 32 from the free throw line to set his new career high, adding 14 rebounds, three assists and four steals while finishing plus-29 as Milwaukee improved to 17-7 on the season.
To add another layer of intrigue, video of the postgame scene on the court appeared to show a Bucks security staffer receiving the ball that was used at the end of the game from one of the referees. It’s unclear whether the game ball was passed on to a member of the Pacers or whether Antetokounmpo was mistaken and the Pacers had taken the alternate ball for Tshiebwe.
Antetokounmpo said he understood why Tshiebwe would want to commemorate his first point, but the Bucks star noted he had topped 60 points and Lillard had passed Kyle Korver for fifth place on the NBA’s all-time list of three-point field goals during Wednesday’s game. Both historic honors, Antetokounmpo suggested, should take precedence over Tshiebwe’s scoring debut.
Regardless, the King Solomon-like scene triggered another regret for Antetokounmpo, who wished he had a memento from his signature performance: A 50-point explosion in Game 6 of the 2021 Finals that clinched the Bucks’ first championship in 50 years and earned him Finals MVP honors.
“I don’t even have the game ball [from Game 6],” he said. “It hurts me.”