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The NBA In-Season Tournament Is Giving Us a Dream Finale

Tyrese Haliburton and LeBron James will square off for the inaugural NBA Cup, rewarding fans with a David vs. Goliath matchup so intriguing that Adam Silver couldn’t have scripted a better finish himself

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA Cup is real. It’s real because of the energy it’s already been imbued with, less than 48 hours before its maiden finale: Saturday’s championship game between the Indiana Pacers and the Los Angeles Lakers. It’s real because, in short order, it’s birthed a new superstar in Tyrese Haliburton, who has developed a taste for the limelight (and shit stirring) and doesn’t seem intent on relinquishing the feeling. It’s real because, in the span of 22 and a half minutes on Thursday night, LeBron James issued a decree saying as much.

It was all there, written on the court. A barrage of 11 consecutive points, a pointed statement made in taking the brunt of three charge fouls, an omnipresence on both sides of the ball that felt of a completely different vintage. An uncommon urgency. In those 22 and a half minutes, LeBron notched 30 points, eight assists, and five rebounds—as thoroughly impressive as any performance he’s had in his six seasons as a Laker. It was a glimpse of playoff intensity in early December from the all-time leader in postseason games played.

The NBA Cup is brand-new, but based on an idea that’s more than 150 years old. LeBron makes a fitting shepherd. For more than two decades, James has been the first and last word on the myths, both new and dying, that have come to define the NBA over that time. He is the prism through which the game itself refracts. In Thursday’s postgame presser after the Lakers’ decisive 133-89 win over the New Orleans Pelicans, James was reminded that he’s played a role in legitimizing each of the league’s biggest structural innovations of the past five seasons: the bubble, the play-in tournament, and now, the in-season tournament.

“This is definitely heightened,” James told reporters in Las Vegas, “being NBA players and what’s at stake and things of that nature.”

What’s at stake is a $500,000 reward for each player on the winning team, but it’s also more nebulous than that—what’s at stake depends on what can be taken as inspiration. It’s an early-season Rorschach test. The entire premise of the tournament relies on the notion of what drives players and, thus, the league. That was always the question heading into this whole affair, whether the buy-in would be there, whether it would feel materially different from a normal regular-season game before Christmas. For a young, ascendant team like the Pacers, just the prospect of wider national exposure is a good enough reason to want to survive and advance. For a veteran team like the Lakers, it’s a perfect time to test the different gears that the team can access, a physical and psychological tune-up.

It’s not really too different from what players do on a regular basis—create and destroy new monsters, spawned from even the slightest chip on their shoulders. Giannis Antetokounmpo ruined a rookie’s training camp by inventing, in real time, an entire story about how the foolish rook had disrespected him during a scrimmage. Michael Jordan built a billion-dollar life out of such slights and successfully supplanted the crying Jordan meme with a moment from his legacy documentary that both lampoons and valorizes his vengeful obsessiveness. LeBron has been sucking inspiration through the same “#WashedKing” straw for, like, five years now. The NBA Cup draws from the same creative impulse for generating motivation, codified into a structure with all the bells and whistles—literally all of them.

What does that all amount to, in this first iteration? Well, it will be the first time the entire basketball-viewing public will be invested in a Lakers-Pacers matchup since the turn of the century. (Shout-out to Austin Croshere. Shout-out to Travis Best.) The inaugural NBA Cup game is the NBA’s second-most important contribution to the Y2K fashion revival, behind only the existence of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

It will be a clash of generations. There is a 15-year age gap between the game’s two headlining stars. Haliburton, in his quest to bring Indiana back into the national spotlight with breakneck speed, will have to topple time itself. LeBron is a palimpsest of the past four decades of basketball, a reflection of all its evolutions, both schematic and cultural. He’s been around long enough to have played against the Pacers’ stylistic forebears. He was there when Steve Nash and Mike D’Antoni tilted the game irrevocably with their “Seven Seconds or Less” mantra. He witnessed the twisted logic of Don Nelson’s helter-skelter Nellie Ball offense unwind itself in Golden State to reveal a dynastic blueprint built on the unprecedented genius of Steph Curry. (Hell, it’s looking like LeBron might last longer than this Warriors era, too.)

LeBron has played Goliath to a number of Davids in his day, and Indiana’s 123.5 offensive rating is its slingshot. This Pacers offense, threatening to set a new standard for efficiency across all of basketball history, has proved legitimate a quarterway through the season. And it passed a monumental challenge on Thursday, overcoming a talented and experienced Milwaukee Bucks team despite hitting only seven 3-pointers (it was the first time the Pacers had won all season without hitting at least 10). Variance plays a significant role in single-elimination tournaments, and it’s an element of the game that the Pacers have harnessed through throttling the number of possessions in a game. Every night is the same gambit for Indiana, but the math has checked out more games than not—and it doesn’t hurt that Haliburton has been incapable of making mistakes in the knockout rounds of the IST.

What an unlikely hero Haliburton would be. If LeBron is basketball’s Vitruvian Man, Haliburton is closer to the strange, galaxy-brained diary entries that da Vinci wrote in reverse, legible only when held up to a mirror. Haliburton is the spirit of Magic Johnson reincarnated in the body of Kerry Kittles. But, see, the basketball gods have a weird sense of humor: They gave him the shooting mechanics of a septuagenarian YMCA gym rat. The real punchline? It works beautifully.

And maybe this is the ultimate proof of the in-season tournament’s viability—that I’m not exactly convinced that LeBron, protagonist of protagonists, is the most compelling story to come from this enterprise. As in all of the other win-or-go-home tournament constructions that informed the NBA’s planning, it’s hard not to root for the underdog, for the potential to be surprised. If there was a script set for the NBA Cup, the league penned it well—there is always drama to be mined from a clash between the unexpected and the inevitable.