Hailey Meuchel, CBS Sports

MILWAUKEE -- Late on Wednesday night, in the tunnel near the visitor's locker room at Fiserv Forum, Adrian Griffin ran into Rick Carlisle on his way out. 

"We good coach?" Griffin asked. The words hung in the air without a reply for a few seconds, until Carlisle muttered back, "yeah." His tone and demeanor suggested the opposite. 

Just minutes earlier, the same spot where they now stood had been the site of a near brawl when Bucks players chased down the Pacers after the final buzzer in search of the game ball for Giannis Antetokounmpo, who had finished with a franchise-record 64 points in a 140-126 win

The game, which officially clocked in at a laborious two hours and 48 minutes, featured an all-time milestone, a flagrant foul, multiple technicals, an ejection and a career and franchise-record for a two-time MVP. And no one cared about any of it because of a literal basketball mystery. 

It was, without a doubt, the strangest night I've ever had covering a basketball game. 

'The man wanted that ball'

As the clock wound down on what would be a comfortable win for the Bucks, no one was paying much attention to the Pacers' bench area. Reporters (including myself) across the court in the press box were packing up when suddenly there was a sense of commotion.

I looked up just in time to see multiple Bucks players heading down the Pacers' tunnel, which, of course, is not supposed to happen. Soon thereafter, Antetokounmpo reappeared and began angrily yelling and gesturing at Tyrese Haliburton, who was still on the court. 

"For some reason he wanted to confront me," Haliburton would say later. "I was just standing out there."

It was clear something big was happening, especially when we were prevented from making our usual walk to the interview rooms by security, and needed a Bucks PR staff member to escort us there through a separate tunnel. 

We soon got to talk to Cameron Payne, who was one of the players in the mix behind the scenes. His short and sweet response summed things up better than anyone else could. 

"The man wanted that ball," Payne said. 

The magic basketball theory

The best thing about covering the NBA is you never know what's going to happen when you arrive at the arena. One night you might find yourself sitting in the media room at 1:15 a.m. discussing what happened to a basketball like it's the magic bullet in the JFK assassination. 

Here's what we know for sure:

  • At the buzzer, Bucks assistant director of security, Danny Carter, approached the ref and received the basketball that was being used in the final minutes of the game. He was collecting it for Giannis Antetokounmpo in honor of his record-setting 64-point performance. 
  • Down on the other end of the floor, the Pacers walked out with a basketball of their own, which they planned to give to rookie Oscar Tshiebwe, who had scored his first official points in the game. The Pacers, per Carlisle, believed they had one of the two alternate balls, and did not need the official one. 
  • As the game ended, there was a misunderstanding regarding the ball(s), which is why the Bucks chased the Pacers into the tunnel. 
  • After the game, both Antetokounmpo and Pacers assistant coach Lloyd Pierce had a basketball. 

Here's what we do not know for sure:

  • Who has the official game ball? 
  • Did a switch occur at some point during or after the game? 
  • Were the Pacers upset about Antetokounmpo chasing points with the game out of hand and being petty?

Antetokounmpo, for his part, is convinced the Pacers had the real ball. 

"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've played 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, but I don't know if it's actually the game ball.

"I knew they had the game ball. I didn't think they had the game ball, I knew they had the ball. I don't know how it works, but I assume I cannot just walk into any arena I play in and just take the ball."

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Occam's razor says that despite Antetokounmpo's conviction and specificity, it was all a big misunderstanding and he has the official game ball. But what if he doesn't? There's just enough room for doubt that it makes for the perfect mid-season drama. 

Bruised ribs for the Pacers' GM? 

When Carlisle sat down at the podium in the press conference room, he launched into an opening statement that lasted nearly three minutes. Most notably, he said that Pacers general manager Chad Buchanan had taken a shot from a Bucks player.  

"I don't know what to call it, a fracas? A melee?" Carlisle said. "I don't think any punches were landed, but my general manager got elbowed in the ribs by one of their players. He certainly has bruised ribs, and who knows if it's anything more than that."

Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was one of four Bucks players in the tunnel along with his brother Thanasis, Jae Crowder and Cam Payne, would neither confirm nor deny that claim. 

"I didn't see it, so I'm not gonna comment on something that I didn't see," Antetokounmpo said. "I don't want to create a narrative that maybe that happened and it actually did not happen. Maybe coach saw that, and I'm gonna respect his view."

A coach accusing an opposing player of elbowing his general manager after the game is a huge deal, and would be the lead story almost every single night. But not this one. If true, the Bucks player -- Carlisle wouldn't name names -- will certainly face some sort of punishment from the league. 

Getty Images

'Dudes were fired up'

The ball debacle was one thing, but to understand why tensions were so high after the game, you actually have to go back to last week, when the Pacers got their second win over the Bucks this season in the semifinals of the In-Season Tournament. 

"Dudes were fired up," Haliburton said. "We beat them twice, so they wanted to come out and get us … some high emotions, a lot of testosterone going on out there." 

That was clear from the first quarter, when Haliburton threw down a big dunk, then got decked by a shoulder to the chest from Antetokounmpo. The Bucks star was whistled for a technical foul, and things would only get chippier from there. It truly felt like an "in-season rivalry," as Bobby Portis put it. 

Early in the fourth quarter, Aaron Nesmith delivered a hard foul to Antetokounmpo that was upgraded to a Flagrant 1 upon review for "unnecessary" contact. Nesmith also got a technical foul in the incident, as did Portis, whom the refs deemed an "escalator." A few minutes later, Portis was ejected after receiving a second technical for jawing with Obi Toppin. Fiserv Forum erupted in "Bobby!" chants for the fan favorite. 

"I'm just here for everybody, man," Portis said. "I've got everybody's back no matter what it is, no matter what time it is. It might be three in the morning, call me and I'm up. I'm ready."

Then, there was the Bucks' decision to put Antetokounmpo and the starters back into the game with a 10-point lead and 2:04 remaining. While the Pacers had indeed chipped into the Bucks' sizable advantage, it seemed a bit unnecessary after the white flag had been waived.

Antetokounmpo piling on the points, in particular a breakaway dunk in the closing seconds to get to 64, didn't go down well on the Pacers' bench. 

"No point in commenting on it," a somber Carlisle said. "I think it's pretty obvious what the answer is." 

We take all the action we can meet

Over in the Bucks' locker room, the vibes were much different. There was a sense of joy and bemusement from being on the winning side of such a dramatic evening, but the atmosphere was still somewhat charged. Bruce Springsteen's haunting ballad, "Racing in the Street," blasting from Brook Lopez's locker only made the whole scene feel more surreal. 

Damian Lillard, whose climb into fifth place on the all-time 3-pointers list hours earlier had been totally overshadowed, was laughing away on FaceTime. Antetokounmpo was giving a play-by-play of the postgame events to anyone who would listen. Lopez was sure the Pacers were trolling and Portis couldn't believe that getting ejected hadn't excused him from media duties. 

We'll give the last word to Lillard, who said what everyone in the building that night was thinking:

"That was a first. I've never seen all that type of shit ever."