INDIANAPOLIS -- Plenty of good things were spotted in the Milwaukee Bucks' 101-96 loss to the Indiana Pacers on Thursday night.
The Bucks' improved chemistry and energy were evident. And again the revamped bench made a big contribution.
But the Bucks could not seal the deal in the fourth quarter, while the Eastern Conference-leading Pacers could depend on all-stars Paul George and Roy Hibbert.
George showed off his closer skills by making a clutch shot in the lane in the final 2 minutes, and the 7-foot-2 Hibbert added two free throws and muscled his way for a basket.
That was enough to hold off the Bucks (11-46), who played well for the third straight game, although two have been defeats at the hands of the Pacers.
"The last few games have been a much better effort," said Bucks forward Khris Middleton. "It's just the little mistakes we make carry over sometimes.
"At this point we really can't have those mistakes."
Brandon Knight scored 23 points and Middleton added 22 while hitting 9 of 15 shots, including 3 of 4 from three-point range.
"They're relentless," Knight said of the Pacers. "They play the same way all game long. So for us to even come back and take the lead is a positive for us.
"They scored a lot of easy points, especially in that first quarter. But we fought hard tonight. We're definitely fighting and not settling."
The Bucks trailed by 17 points early in the second quarter but used a 12-0 run at the end of the period to pull into a 50-50 halftime tie.
"I don't think we let down at all," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. "They came out second quarter and it was bombs away. It wasn't terrible defense.
"They look you in the eye and pull shots. You can't look at records. Every team plays at a different level at different points in the season. Cleveland went into Oklahoma City last night and won."
Milwaukee hit 62 percent in the second quarter and went 5 of 7 from three-point range as it outscored Indiana, 35-20.
And the Bucks started strong in the third quarter, using a three-pointer by Middleton to take a 60-54 lead.
But the Pacers (44-13) are atop the Eastern Conference for a reason.
Hibbert, limited to four points in Indiana's 110-100 victory in Milwaukee on Saturday, responded with 24 points and 12 rebounds this time.
"They've got some guys that can bounce back," Bucks coach Larry Drew said. "Hibbert is that type of player. He's so big; he's really skilled on both blocks.
"He uses both hands very well. You're not going to completely shut him down."
George finished with 18 points, eight rebounds and six assists and Lance Stephenson also had 18 points.
Indiana went on its own 11-0 run to end the third quarter and grab a 73-66 lead. And the Pacers know how to finish games.
"You have to come up with those 50-50 balls," Drew said. "We gave up two crucial offensive rebounds."
David West grabbed both of those rebounds, leading to five points by the Pacers during a key stretch of the final quarter.
Drew did see some encouraging signs as newcomers Ramon Sessions (13 points, five assists) and Jeff Adrien (four points, six rebounds) continued to bolster the second unit and O.J. Mayo had 14 points in 24 minutes.
"We've kind of got a rhythm as far as the guys we will be playing now and we've actually competed pretty well in our last three ball games," Drew said.
"We didn't fall to the wayside (in the first half). We kept plugging; we kept digging. We tied it up at halftime and we did some good things in the second half."
Bucks center Zaza Pachulia said it's important the team finishes the last 25 games with purpose.
"I'm not surprised we were in the game," Pachulia said. "I see the fire; I see the fight.
"It's beautiful to see. We've been working. Obviously nobody was happy. We started getting guys healthy and that has helped us be more steady.
"We know each other more on the court. It's good to see progress but we can't be satisfied. There's no way we can think about next year unless we take advantage of this year and get better."
(c)2014 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Visit the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at www.jsonline.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services