It’s the season of giving and the Indiana Pacers have one man to be thankful for their early season prosperity. Tyrese Haliburton has given the league whiplash leading Indiana’s turnaround in the second year of his stint in Indiana. No offense is more captivating to watch or more dynamic than Indiana’s swashbucklers and they’ve used this play-in tournament as a springboard. They’re 3-0, upset the Philadelphia 76ers and are practically a shoe-in for the quarterfinals while their offense is blasting through any lineup that dares attempt to slow them down.
Calling the Indiana Pacers one of the NBA’s most scintillating teams is an understatement. Five decades into their NBA existence, Indiana is finally playing at an Indy 500 pace.The peak Reggie Miller era was defined by a physical ‘90s offense that was buoyed by a stifling defense and big Rik Smits anchoring . The Malice in the Palace could have just been a shorthand for the physical brand Ron Artest, Jermaine O’Neal and late-career Reggie were playing to match Detroit’s suffocating defense. Paul George and Roy Hibbert played some of the slowest-paced offensive basketball that was hard to watch at times. Haliburton has Indiana’s offensive humming at levels never before seen in these parts.
Fresh off playing a leading role for Team USA in the FIBA World Cup, Haliburton leads the league in assists, while shooting 51 percent from the field, not far off his career average, and scoring nearly 25 a night. As much affinity as Indiana has for Haliburton, defenders might think of him as disdainfully as Scotty spying on Nino Brown handing out turkeys for goodwill.
They’re the league’s best offense through 11 games in league history, rank first in assist-to-turnover ratio, are near the top in turnover percentage and tops in effective field goal percentage.
Since being handed the keys to Indiana’s offense, Haliburton has become the embodiment of the heliocentric offensive engine Cade Cunningham was supposed to be for Detroit. He’s a stretched out Trae Young who can score at will and manifest points out of nowhere. Haliburton, like so many up-and-coming stars, is symbolic of how length and floor spacing have become the operating procedure. At 6-foot-5, with a 6-foot-8 wingspan, Haliburton is one of the league’s most prolific distributors. However, unlike Young, Haliburton is less of a defensive liability as one of the league’s deadliest shooters despite possessing one of the funkiest jumpers in the league.
While Haluburton was manning the point for Team USA, Young’s invitation never arrived. It’s fitting that Tuesday night’s In-Season Tournament clash between the Atlanta Hawks and Indiana Pacers produced so many offensive pyrotechnics and gave us a glimpse into why Young was snubbed. The 157 points scored by the Pacers established a new franchise record and lifted Indiana to a win in the “defense optional” tilt. But in the individual battle, Haliburton exemplified why Young has fallen in the young guard hierarchy behind his peers.
In the third quarter of Indiana’s final play-in tournament game, Haliburton was absolutely silly, lighting the Atlanta Hawks up for 26 points of his game-high 36. Don’t think Haliburton took a night off from playmaking, though. He wound up compiling 16 helpers thanks in part to Indy’s side dish of scorers.
Somehow the Pacers have given their offense a jolt while phasing out Buddy Hield, who was granted permission to seek a trade before the summer. Hield’s league-leading playoff drought is approaching 500 games, but whether he finds a new address, Indiana is finally on pace to make a postseason run.
A year ago, Sacramento’s Beam Team became one of the NBA’s 9 Wonders of the World, but Indiana’s offense has become an equally alluring attraction. Ironically, Sacramento’s rebirth was triggered by the risky swap of Tyrese Haliburton for Domantas Sabonis before the 2022 trade deadline. It’s become one of the rare high profile trades that’s panned out for both sides. Everytime we think we’ve seen the limits of offensive basketball, a new offensive evolution stretches our capacity of understanding. If the league ended today, Indiana would surpass the 2022-23 Sacramento Kings as the highest-scoring offense per 100 possessions.
Indiana’s metamorphosis happened a year later than Sac-Town’s, but the signs were present along that Haliburton was special. Indiana showed reverence to Haliburton’s development by rewarding him with a $260 million extension. In his second go-round with Indiana, Rick Carlisle has thrown caution to the wind and let Haliburton drive with the restrictor plates off. This season, the Pacers now execute at a remarkably efficient rate for a team that leads the league in pace. The Wizards and Hawks are second and third, respectively, in that department, but their offenses don’t create easier shots at the rate Indiana’s does. The Wizards and Hawks score 11 and 4 fewer points per 100 possessions, respectively.
The In-Season Tournament was made for teams like Indiana to leave their footprints all over. Indiana’s youth and defensive limitations will still hinder them in a seven-game series, but they’ve already shown how high it can lift them in a single elimination format. The Pacers allow the most points in the paint, selling out to defend the perimeter, but have somehow leveraged their gambling defense into the NBA’s best transition offense. Indiana will have an opportunity to make its mark with their boundless offense when the quarterfinals begin, but the statement has already been made.
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