Tyrese Haliburton’s circuitous journey to basketball stardom took him from Oshkosh, Wis., to Ames, Iowa, and then, once in the NBA, from Sacramento to Indianapolis by trade. So it was only right that the Indiana Pacers guard covered an incredible amount of ground to hit the biggest shot of his career.
The upstart Pacers scored a 128-119 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks in the first in-season tournament semifinal at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Thursday, eliminating Giannis Antetokounmpo, Damian Lillard and company from the NBA’s inaugural December showcase. Haliburton, who has led Indiana to a 6-0 record in the tournament, drilled a step-back three-pointer with 48 seconds left to put away the 2021 NBA champions and spoil a potential finals showdown between Antetokounmpo and LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers.
“We’re a disrupter,” Pacers Coach Rick Carlisle said. “A lot of people didn’t want us here. We earned our way here. It’s why we came here. It’s all about getting to the finish line. We talked this morning to our guys about the process that works for us. The process is a team process. It’s a collective effort and a collective will.”
The 23-year-old Haliburton, who has led the NBA’s fastest and most efficient offense through the first quarter of the season, opened the decisive possession by missing a three-pointer from the top of the key. After a scramble for the rebound, Haliburton came up with the ball in the paint, circled back to the top of the arc and then angled left so that he could attack Bucks center Brook Lopez in isolation.
With Lopez back on his heels to protect against a drive, Haliburton skipped backward and to his left, lining up his feet behind the arc before draining the three-pointer in front of an excited Pacers bench. The fourth-year guard then looked down at his right wrist, an apparent reference to Lillard’s “Dame Time” celebration for clutch shots.
“I learned as a kid, when you dish it out, you’ve got to be willing to take it,” Lillard said of Haliburton’s celebration. “For as many times as I’ve done it to people, I can’t be upset when somebody else does it. I think that’s also a sign of respect and acknowledgment for knowing my history and knowing what I do.”
Haliburton finished with 27 points, 15 assists and no turnovers, and the Pacers, who haven’t reached the playoffs since 2020 or won a series since 2014, will have a chance to become the first in-season tournament champions Saturday.
“It was just in the heat of the moment,” Haliburton said. “Having fun. I kind of pounded my chest and said it was my time. It’s our time as a group. We’re playing the right way. We’re shocking the world right now and we’re going to continue to do that. It doesn’t matter who believes in us.”
The NBA’s inaugural tournament enjoyed a raucous quarterfinals held in the home arenas of the top four qualifiers from the opening round group stage, but the shift to a neutral site for the semifinals brought some complications.
Las Vegas was in a somber mood following a shooting that left three dead at UNLV, and Thursday’s festivities began with a moment of silence for the victims. The made-for-television doubleheader, which featured integrated broadcast crews from ESPN and TNT, tipped off at 2 p.m. local time in front of thousands of empty seats. Due to the tournament’s knockout format for the quarterfinals, which were held Monday and Tuesday, fans of the qualifying teams had only a few days’ notice to book trips to Sin City, while local fans had to clear their schedules on a weekday afternoon.
The result was a subdued atmosphere for the start of the matinee between the Bucks and Pacers, though a blue-and-red painted court, stage lighting on the court and the presence of Hall of Famers Shaquille O’Neal, Julius Erving, Gary Payton and Mitch Richmond added some juice.
Indiana built a 12-point lead during a sleepy first half, but Lillard came alive in the third quarter as the stands filled out and the crowd grew louder. After shooting just 2-of-10 from the field during the first half, the seven-time all-star made four three-pointers in quick succession as Milwaukee rode a 17-4 run out of the break to retake the lead. The Bucks used a zone defense to throw off Indiana’s offense during the third quarter, but Haliburton gradually found room to operate and the Pacers refused to fold.
Indiana survived a game-high 37 points from Antetokounmpo and displayed impressive resolve in a back-and-forth final period. Haliburton did a little bit of everything down the stretch, finding Obi Toppin on a picture-perfect alley-oop and blowing past Lopez to finish an acrobatic layup in transition.
“Everybody knows that Tyrese is definitely the best passer in the game right now,” Toppin said. “He wants to see everybody win.”
After earning his first all-star selection last year, Haliburton has averaged 26.9 points and a league-leading 12.1 assists to lead the Pacers to a 12-8 record and earn early MVP consideration.
“Tyrese is certainly our leader, no question about that,” Carlisle said. “I thought he was spectacular: 27 [points] and 15 [assists] these days are kind of like average numbers for him. He drove the bus when the game counted down the stretch. He’s a great closer. Tyrese is just one of those transcendent players. He has all the tools and all the personality and has the desire. People are talking about him for MVP and rightfully so.”