Championship Preview: Pacers haven't crumbled in the spotlight, they're excelling and having fun
The Pacers are undefeated in tournament play and will be playing their third consecutive game on national TV after 0 appearances in the first 18 games.
LAS VEGAS — Even before the new in-season tournament format was fully digestible by fans and media alike, it was unlikely that the Pacers would make it to Las Vegas for the final four. Could they even win their Group over the 76ers or Cavs, two playoff teams with experience, and advance to the Knockout Round?
Meanwhile, all the Pacers did was keep believing … and keep winning.
“We believed in it from the beginning,” said Aaron Nesmith, the Swiss Army knife of the team. “A lot of people didn’t expect for us to be here so we’re going to carry that chip on our shoulder going into tomorrow and go get this win.”
When it was first introduced in July, when we were last here for summer league, it wasn’t discussed much amongst the team. However, they were interested in the added stakes for early-season games.
“I think it’s going to be interesting for the fans,” Andrew Nembhard said then. “I love it. I’m super competitive so something like that adds something to the fire.”
As the stakes have continued to rise and more eyeballs are tuned in, the Pacers didn’t wilt away. They’ve blossomed. They’ve grown up, elevated their play to match the moment and led by Tyrese Haliburton, they continue to surprise.
“Everyone here is super hungry and have wanted a chance to show what they can do,” T.J. McConnell said. “When you got a point guard like Tyrese running it for you, you always give yourself a chance.”
Haliburton has been the tournament darling, the MVP if the Pacers can beat one more opponent — the Lakers, who like them, are 6-0 in tournament play.
Haliburton isn’t just piling up points, he’s also been efficient and deliberate with the ball. Over the past two games, against the top two teams in the East (Celtics, Bucks), he’s totaled 53 points, 28 assists, 0 turnovers in 77 minutes.
“I'm always just trying to make the right play,” he said. “I think as long as us as a team, we take care of the ball, we're going to get enough good looks that we're going to be in every game. The games that we take care of the ball we're really hard to beat because we're going to get enough good looks and more times than not we're going to make enough good looks. I think it's a team effort.”
And when asked about being inserted into the MVP conversation because of his recent play, he said, “Yeah, it’s cool. It feels like 2K sometimes. It feels really good for me.
“But at the end of the day, I've spoken on this since the start of the season. I just want to win.”
Which brings us to Saturday’s championship game against the Los Angeles Lakers (8:40 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN2). In a rematch of the 2000 Finals, the makeup of the two teams is vastly different.