LAS VEGAS — In a question to Tyrese Haliburton, a reporter compared the Pacers’ quest to a role-playing adventure video game using the format that goes back to Super Mario Brothers and Zelda.
To advance to the next level in such games, you have to defeat monsters at the end that are bigger and nastier than the last. To reach the finals of the In-Season Tournament, the Pacers had to get through a group play round that included Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey, Cleveland’s Donovan Mitchell, Atlanta’s Trae Young and Detroit’s Cade Cunningham. In the quarterfinals, they took down the Boston Celtics and All-NBA wings Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Then in the semis, they knocked out Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard.
And now, in the finals, they face the Lakers and LeBron James.
“You’re saying he’s like the final boss?” Haliburton asked.
He’s a lot like that really. It may have been 10 years since he’s won an MVP and three since he’s won a championship, but he’s still very much the game’s most transcendent figure among active players.
It’s fitting on a number of levels that this is how this journey — itself sort of an interlude in the grander NBA season — will end. The young, upstart Pacers face the Lakers at 8:30 p.m. Eastern in the inaugural In-Season Tournament final in a game televised on ABC and ESPN2, and to become the event’s first champion they have to defeat arguably the greatest basketball player who has ever lived and inarguably the most historically decorated currently active player in the game.
It’s particularly fitting for Haliburton because he grew up a huge LeBron James fan. Haliburton was just 3 years old when LeBron James made his NBA debut in 2003, and Haliburton followed James regardless of what team he was on. Though Haliburton was always long and skinny — and still is at 6-5, 185 pounds — he still found a lot to emulate in the game of the cartoonishly muscular 6-9, 250-pound James, particularly his court vision and unselfish approach. Haliburton’s father, John, wanted him to emulate Magic Johnson, and at the end of the day, Haliburton’s game is much closer to Magic’s than LeBron’s, but John convinced Tyrese to watch old highlights of Magic by pointing out his similarities with LeBron.
Haliburton has played against James before and was on Team LeBron for last year’s All-Star Game, but this time he gets to do so with $500,000 and a trophy on the line and his image taking up equal billing with James on marquees and graphics as the biggest stars on each team.
“Like any kid born in 2000, LeBron was my favorite player growing up, and it’s hard for him not to be for a lot of us,” Haliburton said. “Growing up, I was a Cavs fan, then a Heat fan, then a Cavs fan again, then a Lakers fan before I got drafted. It’s just how it went. To be able to compete against him in a championship is kind of like a storybook a little bit, and it’s going to be a lot of fun. But that’s the great part about being in the NBA, getting to compete against your idols on a nightly basis. I really look forward to that.”
And even though in Year 21, LeBron James has been in the NBA almost as long as Haliburton and several of his teammates have been alive — he was actually drafted before Pacers rookie Jarace Walker was born and played his first NBA game before Walker was two months old — he hasn’t slowed down much in all that time. He’s averaging 25.0 points per game, 7.5 rebounds and 6.6 assists per game.
That scoring average would be the second-lowest of James’ career with his 20.9 points per game as a rookie being the only lower figure, but he’s averaging a career low 16.8 field goal attempts per game and playing some of the most efficient basketball of his life. He’s shooting 55.3% from the floor, which over a full season would be his highest clip since 2013-14. He’s making 40.7% of his 3-pointers, which would be a career high, and his effective field goal percentage of .621 would also be a career high.
James scored 30 points on Thursday to help obliterate the Pelicans to give the Lakers the Western Conference title in the IST, and he only needed 12 field goal attempts to do it. He made nine of those, including all four of his 3-pointers to go with 8-of-8 free throws and eight assists against zero turnovers.
“LeBron James is in his prime still,” Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said. “I’m watching the guy last night, and it’s phenomenal. This is a guy — someone just gave me the stat. He’s the only player in NBA history who has been the youngest player in the league and the oldest player in the league, both. That speaks to obviously an amazing run of longevity and, in his case, greatness. He’s the all-time leading scorer, and if there’s a Mount Rushmore, he’s one of the guys on the NBA Mount Rushmore. That’s what we’re up against tomorrow.”
James’ teammates and coaches think he’s even more locked in than previous years, even though he will turn 39 on Dec. 30. His body hasn’t slowed and his focus seems somehow rejuvenated. He took three charges in Thursday night’s game, which the other Lakers saw as a sign that he badly wants to win this event.
“Everything seems to just be a little different,” Lakers wing Austin Reaves said. “Obviously I’ve only been in the league for — this is my third year now, and being around him for those three years, this year he seems very much alive, healthy, and his competitiveness and attention to detail is always great. But something seems a little different in the way he’s playing. It’s at a super-high level for anybody, any age, but especially for someone that’s played as long as he has.”
That said, the Pacers can counter with the 23-year-old Haliburton. Considering the size difference in the superstars, it could be considered a David-and-Goliath matchup, but Haliburton has been wielding a seriously impressive slingshot. He’s building a darkhorse MVP candidacy and his In-Season Tournament performance has certainly been MVP caliber. He’ll certainly be the first IST MVP if the Pacers win and might even have a chance to earn the award if they lose.
He’s averaging 27.8 points and 13.7 assists per game in In-Season Tournament play while shooting 51.8% from the floor, 44.8% from 3-point range and 88.9% from the free-throw line. His 82 total assists in the event are 37 more than any other player. His 167 total points put him behind only Antetokounmpo (174) and Lillard (172) and he will certainly pass both Saturday with them now eliminated.
Even the Lakers speak about in glowing tones.
“I see a kid out there, a multifaceted, highly talented player that’s having a great time playing basketball,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “You see him, he’s always smiling. He’s in a good rhythm with his teammates. He’s always encouraging his teammates. You can tell they have fun playing together. I mean, he does everything. He does a little bit of everything. He puts pressure on you from the start of the clock to the end of the clock, a guy that’s able to push the pace, make unbelievable passes and reads, make shots. He can just pretty much do it all.”
Reaves already got a sense of that when he and Haliburton played together with Team USA this summer at the FIBA World Cup. They played together in the second unit, but Haliburton seemed more focused on making sure Reaves got shots than he was on getting his own. Haliburton led the Americans with 5.6 assists per game and Reaves finished second on the team in scoring with 13.8 points per game.
“He instills confidence in you,” Reaves said. “Anytime he swings the ball and you’re open, he wants you to shoot it. It’s not more so shoot it to give me an assist; it’s he wants you to be successful, as well. Anytime you’ve got a guy like that, the caliber of player that he is that believes that confidence in you, it makes life easy.”
Haliburton has made his teammates’ lives easy, but they have obviously helped, shooting 51.1% from the floor for the tournament and 41.1% from 3-point range. They haven’t been great defensively, but their defensive rating in In-Season Tournament games of 117.3 puts them 21st in the league as opposed to their regular-season mark of 119.8 that puts them 28th.
The Pacers didn’t even make the playoffs last year and they are one of the most under-exposed teams in the NBA with just one nationally televised game on the initial schedule. However, they have already taken out some big monsters including the top three seeds in last year’s Eastern Conference playoffs, so they have every reason to believe they can take out the final boss.
“We’re not supposed to be here and nobody expected us to be here,” Haliburton said. “We’ve been probably looked at to lose the majority of our tournament games. The Philly game, we weren’t supposed to win. Boston game we definitely weren’t supposed to win. Milwaukee, we definitely weren’t supposed to win. That’s just been part of the storybook of this, and it’s been a lot of fun. But it’s not done yet. We’ve got to be prepared to go tomorrow and approach that game the right way.”