INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Danny Granger refuses to relax as he leads the Pacers toward their long-awaited playoff goal.
The forward scored 17 points as Indiana beat Milwaukee 89-88 on Friday night, solidifying its position while pushing the Bucks to the brink of elimination in the Eastern Conference race.
Granger has been the face of a franchise that has missed the playoffs the past four years. The Pacers currently are in the final playoff spot in the East, two games ahead of Charlotte and four ahead of Milwaukee with five to play. The Bobcats lost to Orlando 89-77 on Friday night, adding significance to Indiana's victory.
``That's a huge win for us, especially considering Charlotte lost,' Granger said. ``We're one step closer. We just need to keep winning, and that will take care of everything.'
The Pacers thought they had gained control of the race when they won at Charlotte on March 23. Things quickly turned.
``Charlotte, the last time we thought we put them out, they won two or three in a row, we lost two in a row' Granger said. ``So you never know what's going to happen.'
The Bucks trailed the entire second half but could have won in the closing seconds, when Drew Gooden missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
``I was the last option, and it just called for me to pop back out if nobody was open,' Gooden said. ``So I got it. All I could do is fling it up there. I tried to get some contact on the arm and maybe get a call, but you saw the result. Just hit the back of the rim.'
The Bucks were trying to get the ball to John Salmons.
``We'd like a better look than that,' Bucks coach Scott Skiles said. ``They did a nice job of defending. We weren't exactly supposed to pop out there and end up with that one. But it's the shot we got, and we just didn't make it.'
Now, the Bucks are nearly out of chances to save their season. Skiles was disappointed that his starters were outplayed with so much at stake.
``We had to go to the bench, and those guys got us back in the game, but that shouldn't be necessary in a game like this,' he said.
Roy Hibbert had 15 points and 11 rebounds and Brandon Rush added 12 points for the Pacers (35-42), who have won five of seven. Indiana held Milwaukee to 43 percent shooting.
``You learn a lot about your guys when you have a high-stakes game like tonight,' Indiana interim coach Frank Vogel said. ``I'm proud of our defensive effort.'
Brandon Jennings had 20 points and seven rebounds for the Bucks (30-45), while Andrew Bogut added 16 points before fouling out.
The Pacers led by 14 points in the third quarter, but Milwaukee cut Indiana's lead to 87-86 on a jumper by Salmons with 1:29 remaining.
Hibbert dunked at the other end before Salmons struck again with a jumper from beyond the top of the key to trim Indiana's lead to 89-88 with 26.7 seconds to play. Indiana worked the clock on its next possession, but Darren Collison's floater was short.
``We got a great look and he missed it,' Vogel said. ``That happens sometimes.'
Milwaukee rebounded and called timeout with 2.7 seconds left to set up Gooden's final shot.
Granger said the Pacers need to play better in the fourth quarter.
``Closing games has a lot to do with maturity and experience, which we don't have a lot of,' he said. ``We'll make some bonehead mistakes at the end of games, but we learn from them. Hopefully, it won't bite us in the playoffs.'
Indiana rallied from eight points down in the first quarter.
Collison's floater in the lane with 2.2 seconds left in the first half gave Indiana a 46-39 advantage at the break. The Pacers shot 60 percent from the field in the second quarter while the Bucks made just 6 of 25 shots in the period.
Indiana opened the second half like a team trying to deliver a knockout. The Pacers used a 6-0 run, highlighted by a steal and layup by Collison, for a 52-39 lead that forced the Bucks to call a timeout. Indiana still led 69-60 at the end of the third quarter before Jennings rallied the Bucks with nine points in the fourth.
``They were really scrappy,' Hibbert said. ``They played with us until the end. We did what we had to do defensively to get this win.'
NOTES: Indiana committed nine turnovers in the first quarter. ... The Women's Basketball Coaches Association high school All-America teams watched the game. They play Saturday at Conseco Fieldhouse as part of the women's Final Four weekend. ... Notre Dame star Ben Hansbrough attended the game. He's the brother of Pacers starter Tyler Hansbrough. ... Milwaukee's Luc Mbah A Moute got a technical foul with 5:12 left in the second quarter. It was his second in 227 career games.
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