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Tyrese Haliburton Just Made the NBA In-Season Tournament a Thing

Talk about a statement win. Not only did the Indiana Pacers’ young star catapult his team to a dramatic win with his first triple-double and a late four-point play, but he also may have validated the NBA’s experiment in the process.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With 93 seconds remaining in the first single-elimination in-season tournament game in NBA history, the league secured a picture-perfect case study of what the tournament’s elevated stakes can propel—a newly minted iconography that could be cited and revisited for years to come. The game, between the Indiana Pacers and Boston Celtics, was tied at 105. Tyrese Haliburton, the jubilant engine to the Pacers’ irrepressible offense, found himself navigating against the Celtics’ moving menagerie of cross matches—Derrick White became Al Horford as Myles Turner pulled White closer to the painted area (or, well, what’s normally the painted area); Horford became Jaylen Brown as Buddy Hield slipped over to the right wing. But it didn’t really matter who was guarding him. This was a moment Haliburton had to seize for himself.

Standing mere inches from the painted “I” in the “INDY” center logo at the Gainbridge Fieldhouse, Haliburton sank low on a diagnostic dribble with Brown in his vicinity, allowing the dribble to rise into his unique shooting pocket. With legs splayed and Brown’s lunging frame threatening to engulf the shot, Haliburton drilled a miraculous 27-footer and the ensuing free throw—a four-point play that would set into motion a spirited (and game-clinching) 9-0 Pacers run entirely facilitated by their star point guard. All things considered, it was Haliburton who authored the most consequential play of the season thus far.

“When the boat starts rocking, when you’re in a home game in the playoffs, that’s when special things can happen,” Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle said after the team’s stunning 122-112 victory over the Celtics.

If there was any question about whether single-elimination games in December could simulate the charged atmosphere of the postseason, Carlisle’s slipup is your answer.

Indiana’s statement win was all the sweeter given the statistics and stylistic markers underpinning the matchup. (Not to mention the 51-point loss in Boston last month, which had to be avenged.) The two teams are nearly diametrically opposed in defensive efficiency, pace, and 3-point attempts allowed. Haliburton is riding a historical high as an offensive engine, but what could he do against White and Jrue Holiday, two of the best perimeter defenders in the league? The Pacers would have to hit a majority of their 3s against a stout defense because their own inability to prevent high-percentage scoring opportunities on drives and around the rim would flip the math on what is typically a beneficial trade-off. And in an uncustomarily grueling first half, it seemed as though the Pacers would succumb to the unfamiliar style impressed on them: They were hitting their 3s but missed just about everything else; they allowed the Celtics to crash the glass and recoup on second-chance opportunities; they still couldn’t defend around the rim. They were lucky to be down only seven points.

But then, in the third quarter, as has been the case all season, the Pacers went iridescent. Indiana scored 20 points in roughly six minutes to start the quarter, with Haliburton accounting for all of them via field goal or assist. The team’s evolutionary Seven Seconds or Less shtick may feel like an unsustainable regular-season gimmick, but its ability to reach another gear right after halftime has positive precedents. One of the hallmarks of the Golden State Warriors dynasty was how quickly it could demoralize teams in the third quarter. For five consecutive seasons, Golden State led the league in third-quarter net rating. At the franchise’s absolute peak, the 2016-17 Warriors—arguably the greatest team ever—outscored teams in the third quarter at a rate of 23 points per 100 possessions, with an offensive rating of 123.3. With Haliburton on the floor, the Pacers have an unfathomable offensive rating of 131.7 in the third quarter—the kind of numbers you’d drop in 2K against a 10-year-old to make them wish they’d never been born. If only Indiana could even muster a below-average defense rather than one of the worst in the league. Then again, perhaps that’s part of the charm.

The in-season tournament concept has been a huge success in just about every respect. (I’ll cop to being overly cynical about the whole affair, all for the sake of getting some jokes off. Oops!) The heightened sense of competition, the point scheming, the pageantry—it works. And last night, in an NBA game that was truly the first of its kind, not only did we get a thrilling down-to-the-wire game, but we also got to see the spotlight placed on a young breakout star who wouldn’t have gotten that shine otherwise. Monday’s bout was Haliburton’s first TNT game and only the second nationally televised game of his career. What a time for his first career triple-double.

It’s been only hours since it happened, but my mind comes back to the four-point play, because how could it not? I rack my brain trying to figure out what this moment is reminding me of, but not before laughing at the thought of casual viewers watching Haliburton play for the first time, seeing this spindly, Gumby-esque figure with a wonky shot asserting his dominance against one of the best teams in the league. I watch the shot again, hitting pause at each passing frame. I watch it again. Again. Frozen on screen, his mechanics make total sense.

When he was growing up, Haliburton’s lack of strength compromised his form—he needed to dip the ball down to his knees to create enough leverage to shoot. To adapt to higher levels of the game, he’d torture himself with Mikan drills right around the basket, instilling muscle memory to keep the ball above his shoulders. From there, he had the mechanisms to aim and fire, eliminating the dip by keeping the ball high as a starting point on his shot. Over the years, he’s found new ways of getting the ball into his pocket—sometimes even allowing a dribble to bound up directly into his shooting motion—with a quick release of the ball occurring before the apex of his jump. It’s not for everyone, but it works for him. It’s beautiful, if only in its specific economy of motion.

Sounds familiar. There’s a game-changing top-five player in the league with the exact same origin story. Maybe it’s best not to get too ahead of myself, but I wonder whether we’ll remember this night like how we remember Steph Curry’s 54 at the Garden a decade ago—a fourth-year lead guard’s star turn happening in the right place at the right time, for all the world to see. It takes a special player to transmute confidence into joy the way Curry does, and these days, Haliburton is coming awfully close, exceeding even his own lofty expectations. “There’s probably a world out there where I could realistically average 15 assists. There’s a world out there where I could average 25 points,” he told our own Rob Mahoney. “Well, I’m trying to find a mixture of doing both.”

I think we’re on the right timeline.