Tyrese Haliburton And The Pacers Look Like The NBA In-Season Tournament’s Team Of Destiny

LAS VEGAS — The Indiana Pacers might be the NBA’s most entertaining team this season. After all, the Pacers lead the league in points per game, field goal percentage, assists, pace, and offensive efficiency, concocting a beautiful formula for fireworks on a nightly basis. However, the Pacers are not at the top of the Eastern Conference standings and, when the eight-team field was set for the NBA’s inaugural In-Season Tournament, the Pacers had a difficult path to Saturday’s final in Las Vegas. On Thursday evening, though, the Pacers pulled away from the Milwaukee Bucks in the semifinal, building from a highly impressive quarterfinal win over the Boston Celtics and earning the first bid to the title round with a 128-119 victory.

As was the case in Monday’s quarterfinal, Tyrese Haliburton was the lead story for the Pacers. The All-Star guard would show up on MVP ballots if the 2023-24 season ended today, and Haliburton erupted for 24 points, 15 assists, and six rebounds. Beyond those impressive numbers, Haliburton did it all without committing a single turnover, posting his third career game with at least 25 points, 15 turnovers and no turnovers, the most in the history of the NBA. From there, he was the centerpiece of the closing kick for Indiana.

The Pacers led by only a single point with 2:40 to go, but it was Haliburton Time. First, he had an incredibly impressive driving layup to push Indiana’s lead to five points.

Moments later, Haliburton essentially sealed the victory was a dagger three, putting the Pacers up by eight points and taking an unofficial lead in the In-Season Tournament MVP race.

Of course, Haliburton was not alone on this night. Indiana’s bench was excellent, led by TJ McConnell and Isaiah Jackson. The Pacers clearly won the bench-heavy minutes in the game and, in comparison to the fledgling contributions for Milwaukee’s reserves, Indiana’s bench unit was ultimately pivotal.

Pacers big man Myles Turner also generated 26 points, 10 rebounds, and three blocked shots, skillfully navigating a difficult matchup against Milwaukee’s impressive frontcourt. Impressively, the Pacers pivoted from their typical onslaught of three-pointers and scored a whopping 72 points in the paint, keeping pressure on the rim and adjusting to Milwaukee’s zone defense after a lull in the third quarter.

While the Pacers will always be paced by offense, Indiana’s defense was up to the challenge on this night. The Pacers did yield a 43-point third quarter to a Milwaukee offense that is perpetually dangerous, but Indiana held Milwaukee to fewer than 1.15 points per possession in the game.

That level of defensive efficiency isn’t dominant by traditional standards, but with the Pacers scoring more than 1.2 points per trip, it was more than enough. While Giannis Antetokounmpo (37 points, 10 rebounds) was excellent for Milwaukee, his damage was somewhat mitigated by the lack of excellence elsewhere. For one, the Pacers contained Damian Lillard (24 points on 7-of-20 shooting) for the vast majority of the night. Indiana was also the better team when it came to transition defense and rebounding, finishing with the overall edge in the position battle to help overcome a 7-of-33 night from long distance on offense.

The Pacers will face an intriguing challenge against either the Los Angeles Lakers or New Orleans Pelicans on Saturday under the (very) bright lights in the desert. To this point, however, Indiana has felt like a team playing loose and free despite lofty stakes, and the Pacers won back-to-back duels against established, veteran-laden teams. Big-picture, Indiana’s defense may limit the team from the highest of heights over a large sample but, in the single-elimination madness of the In-Season Tournament, the Pacers can beat anyone, and they’re one step away from a bit of history.

Dime’s Martin Rickman contributed to this report.