Pacers primed for chance at NBA Cup, but they are thinking even bigger

LAS VEGAS — Tyrese Haliburton stared at his wrist, as if Damian Lillard’s fictitious watch iced his own hand responsible for another dagger ending another prime-time game. “I know what time it is!” Haliburton howled. He had sized up Lillard’s mountainous teammate, Milwaukee center Brook Lopez, then tiptoed behind the 3-point line to launch a back-breaking step-back triple — an exclamation point for his Pacers’ 128-119 win over the Bucks in Thursday’s semifinals of the inaugural NBA in-season tournament.

“It’s our time. It’s our time as a group,” Haliburton told reporters postgame. “As long as we play the right way, we know that we’re gonna be in every basketball game.”

That is the collective mindset, on the back of Haliburton’s special blend of playmaking, that has zipped these Pacers to Saturday’s title match and an undefeated jaunt through this first chase for the NBA Cup. This is a youthful roster with microscopic playoff experience that is trading haymakers with the league’s most battle-tested juggernauts and still standing tall.

Indiana walked onto its ice-blue home floor before its first tournament game at four that afternoon in mid-November. “On a court that looked like a skating rink,” head coach Rick Carlisle said. The Pacers would defeat division rival Cleveland, another rising postseason threat that finished fourth in last season’s Eastern Conference standings before shelling out hefty contracts in free agency to solidify a playoff contender. “And then it led to the next [game] and then the next and then the next,” Carlisle said. All Indiana has done en route to Saturday’s title match is knock off Philadelphia, then Boston in the quarterfinals and now Milwaukee — three teams considered the class of the East.

“We’re a disruptor,” Carlisle said. “A lot of people didn’t want us here. We didn’t care about that. We earned our way here, we earned our way to three additional national TV games. So people are gonna find out about the Pacers and who we are and how we play.”

How they play is certainly fast, as well as joyful and connective and unrelenting, albeit without much resistance on the defensive side of the equation. And yet Indiana’s formula is clearly paying dividends. The Pacers have the most dangerous offense in the league — 123.5 points per 100 possessions — without ever being a danger to themselves. Haliburton peppers no-look cross-court passes and bounces dimes through his legs and somehow manages to almost never cough up the rock.

He’s tallied 28 assists to zero turnovers during two games of knockout play. It’s that unselfish flair that had several teammates during this summer’s Team USA effort at the FIBA World Cup quietly hoping for Haliburton to start at point guard over Knicks ball-handler Jalen Brunson, who’s much more of an isolation creator than distributor. And now Haliburton has the Pacers’ roster zipping the ball and running ragged opponents like the Bucks.

“Tyrese is one of those transcendent players that with him on the court, anything’s possible,” Carlisle said.

Myles Turner has rounded into a dangerous pick-and-roll partner, to where he and Haliburton can outduel Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo, three days after silencing Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Turner may be the greatest benefactor of Indiana’s home run trade that acquired Haliburton, as the move not only paired Turner with a brilliant passer but left him as the lone giant stalking the paint following years of stepping on Domantas Sabonis’ toes.

Last season, trade chatter and contract negotiations loomed over much of Turner’s season before he changed representation and inked a two-year, $60 million deal. You can see the lightness in his gate as lumbers down the lane, knowing a feed from Haliburton is always on the table. That serenity is even more evident when he walks to the postgame podium wearing shades and a crisp suit, with nothing underneath his jacket other than gold chains and a bedazzled Longhorn around his neck. After an early taste of perennial playoff appearances that ended in 2020, Turner has been hankering for this opportunity that stands before Indiana.

“It feels damn good, I’m not gonna lie, man,” Turner said. “It’s been a long time coming.”

This roster can still get better. Indiana selected Houston forward Jarace Walker with the eighth pick in June’s draft after the Pacers spent the past few seasons trying to find an answer at power forward. Then the bouncy Obi Toppin became available from New York for the low price of two second-round picks. Aaron Nesmith is still providing critical production after agreeing to a three-year, $33 million extension this fall. Indiana’s deep bench features one of the sturdiest backup floor generals in the league in T.J. McConnell. The list goes on, and there will be opportunities for the Pacers to make some form of consolidation trade before February’s trade deadline.

There’s also an argument, made by one Pacers staffer following the victory at T-Mobile Arena, that this experiment is too fresh and too positive to mess with its current chemistry. Indiana personnel all talk about their locker room like it has the energy of a college program making its way through a Cinderella run. Haliburton chalked up his name surging into the MVP conversation as something that “feels like 2K sometimes,” but said that he and every Pacers player value winning far more than individual acclaim.

“We have a lot of guys that want to compete for something and play for something bigger than ourselves,” Haliburton. “This is the start of that, playing for something real. We got a chance to win a championship. It doesn’t matter the prize [money] or anything like that. We have a chance to win a championship, and we’re not taking that lightly.”

The 23-year-old All-Star was referring to the first NBA Cup the Pacers can claim Saturday against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. And yet Carlisle, the veteran coach who guided Dallas to the 2011 Finals crown, is allowing himself to think even loftier.

“Winning an NBA title is a dream that’s reachable,” Carlisle said. “But it’s gotta be a dream where people can focus on how it’s reachable. We’re showing signs of that. We’re not there yet, we’re showing signs, and we’re a dangerous team.”

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