LAS VEGAS — Remember when it seemed like everyone wanted to eliminate the Indiana Pacers?
Big man Myles Turner wanted greener pastures so badly in December 2021 that he spoke publicly about his desire for “more opportunities” – a rarity in today’s NBA – and shared his opinion that he was being used as a “role player glorified.” Veteran guard Buddy Hield was unable to reach an agreement on an extension with the Pacers this summer, then found himself in the headlines when our own Shams Charania reported that both sides were attempting to work out a trade. The only time we talked about the Pacers on the national stage, it seems, was when it came to possible roster changes or when a certain Memphis Grizzlies star and his associates had a problematic postgame situation with players from the Pacers who have been at the center of a league investigation.
To move around their locker room these days is to truly understand the Tyrese Haliburton effect. It’s like being at a house party that none of the Pacers want to end, with the 23-year-old point guard working the turntables so masterfully that everyone wants to get off the couch and play.
That was the case once again Thursday at T-Mobile Arena, where a 128-119 win over the Milwaukee Bucks in the In-Season Tournament (IST) semifinals only intensified the spotlight that got that much brighter in the last weeks. Haliburton, who found his way into early MVP conversations, turned in a 27-point, 15-assist, zero-turnover outing that Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo described as “extraordinary” and had significant historic consequences. While 11 players they have played games with at least 27 points, 15 assists and no turnovers, Haliburton is the only one to have done it twice (the first was less than two months ago). And no one forgets that he was three days removed from an IST quarterfinal win over the Boston Celtics with 26 points, 13 assists, 10 rebounds and zero turnovers.
What he is doing is simply absurd at this point, with team officials and media members struggling to agree on a player composition that correctly projects his ceiling. Stephen Curry has been mentioned internally as a leading candidate, premature as that may be. Writer and longtime NBA coach David Thorpe made an interesting point about this he is James Harden 2.0. Haliburton’s latest masterpiece inspired an endorsement from Pacers great Reggie Miller that may outweigh all the rest.
“We’re seeing a superstar in the making,” Miller said of Haliburton, who is averaging a league-leading 26.9 points and 12.9 assists per game.
“We are witnessing the birth of a superstar.” – Reggie Miller on Tyrese Haliburton pic.twitter.com/FWW234Au8p
—Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) December 8, 2023
But beyond the basketball discussion, it’s the way Haliburton’s teammates celebrate his success that may be the best indicator of what lies ahead. Pacers smiles that were nowhere to be seen not that long ago are everywhere now. The jokes, absent even in that period in which rumors of a reconstruction fueled uncertainty and some discontent, are a constant.
With the Haliburton in front, they are fast. They are fun. They are exuberant (curse the porous defense). They are…
“Rejuvenation,” as Turner put it.
The 27-year-old knows what he’s talking about.
Midway through his seventh season in Indiana, Turner was so out of place in the Pacers’ world that he was ready for something new. But just a month after he aired those frustrations to the entire basketball world, the deal with Sacramento that brought Haliburton (and Hield) their way changed everything. The departure of center Domantas Sabonis for Sacramento put Turner back in his preferred position, all while giving him a point guard who had a rare ability to elevate the offensive talent of everyone around him.
“I think we won the trade personally, but obviously I’m biased,” Turner said Atletico. “I think it was mutually beneficial. (Kings guard De’Aaron) Fox got something he needed, and I got the point guard I needed.
And over time, as I remembered, everything worked out.
“Those days when I played against the four (along with Sabonis before Haliburton arrived), those were dark days for me because I wasn’t happy,” Turner said. “I didn’t really like my role. I didn’t really like the control that came with playing out of position. …It wasn’t all bad, but it definitely wasn’t good.”
Hield was in that kind of place not too long ago, too. The uncertainty over his contract led to natural questions about how the Pacers viewed him, and that was how he considered the possible next steps that might come. Less than three months later, his outlook on the world of basketball, much like Turner’s, has changed for the better.
“It’s crazy,” said Hield, who is averaging 13.3 points and shooting 38.8 percent from 3-point range on 7.4 attempts per game. “For example, in an NBA season, we’re all human. You always have second thoughts in the back of your head. When things go badly, you have second thoughts. But when it goes well you don’t have second thoughts, you know? And it’s a long season, so you just have to enjoy it, let God control what He controls. Let him handle the future and all you have to do is control what you control on the basketball court.
The change in mood, of course, has everything to do with Haliburton. desde “starless” recruit. the Iowa State standout, 12th pick in the 2020 draft and rising NBA star, is doing the kinds of things even his teammates admit they didn’t expect.
“He always gets mad at me when I always tell him, ‘Hey, I never saw that (coming),’” Hield said. “But once you can shoot the 3-ball that well, it opens up a lot offensively. And when you have vision and disappointment, anticipation or whatever you want to call it, it’s (highly impactful).
“Think two plays in front of the defender, and that’s elite. He just takes it out. “It is special.”
How special is it? Time will tell.
“When you talk about game control, being super smart out there, IQ, he has it all,” said Pacers guard Bruce Brown, who won a title with the Denver Nuggets last season alongside two-time MVP Nikola Jokić before to sign with Indiana in the summer. “I mean, what, he had 15 assists with no turnovers tonight? This doesn’t happen. I only saw him with Nikola. In a few years…”
For now, though, the focus will be on the next few days. The next in-season tournament title game against the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday, and another chance for these Pacers (12-8) to shine before the masses.
“I think we’re shocking the world right now,” Haliburton said. “Nobody expected us to be here except the guys in the locker room. This means a lot to us, so it’s a great feeling.”
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(Top photo by Myles Turner and Tyrese Haliburton: Jeff Bottari/NBAE via Getty Images)