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Past and future collide for Haliburton, Mathurin in win over Pistons

On the key moments from a surprisingly key matchup.

Detroit Pistons v Indiana Pacers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Seven months ago, long before Malcolm Brogdon was traded or Bennedict Mathurin was drafted, Tyrese Haliburton was spinning his tires against Killian Hayes in Detroit, coughing up the ball after struggling to access the paint.

Moments later, with Detroit switching out on ball screens, Brogdon reentered the game and took command of the offense, resulting in a slew of ill-fated, one-and-done isolations. Over the final six minutes, in which the Pacers manufactured a grand total of eight points, Haliburton played mainly away from the ball and attempted two shots, leaving him with a lower tally than Brogdon, Buddy Hield, and Jalen Smith.

On Saturday, however, while facing the same opponent and being confronted by the same switches, look at what he did. Not only dancing with Isaiah Stewart, who stonewalled the Pacers last March, but also swapping the roles of predator and prey, as he stared down his defender with no other intention but to score.

Granted, his method for attacking the switch, as far as moving to his right to create separation for his shot, didn’t vastly change (although he did lift Stewart to his left!), but the mentality against that type of coverage — yeah, that’s a notable shift. Meanwhile, through three games, the only player for the Pacers who has averaged more field-goal attempts during the fourth quarter than Haliburton (5.0) is Mathurin (6.7). And, here’s the thing: opponents don’t really seem to know what to make of Mathurin yet.

Really, though, aside from that, uhh, interesting decision-making on the part of Jakob Poeltl, who can blame them? According to The Ringer’s Zach Kram, Mathurin is only the fifth NBA player since 1980 to score at least 72 points in his first three games, with the others being Isiah Thomas, Dominique Wilkins, Michael Jordan, and Jerry Stackhouse. Meanwhile, he’s also scoring 0.83 points per minute, which is only a shade below the clip achieved by T.J. Warren’s hot hand, as the Michael Jordan of the bubble, during the seeding games in Orlando (0.85). Now, calm down. None of that should be taken to make obscene, premature comparisons, so much as to provide a benchmark for what he’s currently doing. And what he’s currently doing is absurd, which is to say nothing of the way he’s doing it.

For instance, he and Buddy Hield play out of many of the same actions; and yet, while the latter will wait, fake, and sprint, operating predominantly as either a shooter or secondary connector, the former typically plays bully-ball, curling pindowns and zooming around hand-offs to fearlessly leverage downhill catches into flashes of creative finishes and contact, just as he also does in the open floor.

But wait, there’s more. On top of his physicality as an off-ball mover and shaker, consider what happened at the end of the third quarter, when he drained not one, but two dribble threes. In addition to passing the ball on and getting it back (which, by the way, he also deserved credit in this game for the way he moved the ball without determining himself to score no matter what), notice how he retreats backward and then attacks. That allows him to take a running start at his defender, who, in turn, can’t get back on balance to jump in sequence with the release of the shot.

Mathurin isn’t covering as much ground as Oladipo once did, charging at LeBron from the logo, but the tactic is similar. And... well... raise your hand if you expected to see that in the third game of his NBA career.

Also, raise your hand if you understand why Killian Hayes was on the floor for the Pistons but wasn’t defending Mathurin. After all, Mathurin rises up faster than lightning here as soon as he sees Saddiq Bey lean backward on his right foot. As a result, with his back heel barely touching the ground, Bey has no choice but to lurch forward with his left hand, although he avoids the cross-body contest — almost adding to the degree of difficulty.

So, yes, that is also a thing that happened in only the third game of his NBA career. For point of reference, Mathurin attempted a total of five threes in isolation last season for Arizona and only made one. Of course, aside from the audacity, the other notable thing about that sequence is what’s happening away from the ball, where the same player who hounded Haliburton’s handle last March and scored five points on the night can be seen defending Terry Taylor and T.J. McConnell. That didn’t change until midway through the fourth quarter and the shift had nothing to do with Mathurin, who finished with a game-high 27 points. Instead, Hayes took on a different assignment only because Haliburton, who tallied 24 points and 10 assists, had reentered the game.

For the next few minutes, unlike what happened seven months ago, Haliburton stayed on ball, snaking his dribble from left to right for a pull-up two. Shortly thereafter, Hayes subbed out for the night and Haliburton proceeded with calling his own number against Stewart’s switches. Overall, it was only one game and there were certainly stretches where the pace felt pell-mell, as though every possession was either ending in turnovers, some outlandish feat of athleticism, or both. For now, however, identifying what changed for Haliburton and what has yet to change in response to Mathurin shows the value of looking backward both to assess the brilliance of what each is doing in the present as well as to see more of what they might do in tandem, with a longer view, in the future.