Pacers earn trip to Vegas, high praise for win over Celtics
The Pacers players and fans at Gainbridge Fieldhouse put on a full playoff simulation during the Pacers IST Knockout win over the Celtics on Monday nigh.
If you don’t know, no you know.
With apologies to Biggie, even the most casual NBA fan had to take notice of the Pacers and the impact Tyrese Haliburton has on the game after watching the blue and gold secure a 122-112 win at the Fieldhouse.
This team bucked a trend for the Pacers and performed quite well under the spotlight of a national television broadcast on TNT. Not only was it a TNT game, but it was the ONLY game at the time and the Pacers showed out with a second-half effort that earned them a trip to Las Vegas for the NBA In-Season Tournament semifinals on Thursday.
Haliburton finished with his first career triple-double with 26 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds, triggering his teammates to what was a strong team effort against the top team in the East while also igniting a Gainbridge Fieldhouse crowd starved for big moments in big games. After the big win, the Pacers will now play the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday at 5:00 p.m. ET on ESPN.
Haliburton, the “others” in the playing rotation and the Fieldhouse faithful — all three combined for a magical Monday night downtown.
Haliburton survives illness for sick second half
The Pacers All-Star remained questionable due to a respiratory illness throughout the day on Monday, but neither he nor Rick Carlisle thought he would miss the opportunity to play in the showcase game.
Haliburton struggled to start firing on all cylinders, ending the first half with just 7 points and 2 assists. He was also put in the switching blender on defense by the Celtics forcing him to defend Jayson Tatum among others on an island which didn’t end well. This being a team game (more on that later), the Pacers lead for much of the first half, until the Celtics closed the last three and a half minutes on a 12-2 run to take a 55-48 lead to the break. The C’s imposed their will in what seemed to set up an inevitable result.
After a couple of puffs from an asthma inhaler and a defensive adjustment to allow more help, Haliburton looked like an elite player ready to rise to the occasion, as the Pacers punched back with a 37-23 third quarter. Hali had 12 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds in the first eight minutes of the quarter. He scored or assisted on 24 of the the first 27 points in the third.
And he lit a fire in the Fieldhouse that had the place rocking.
After sitting the final four minutes of the third, Haliburton played the final 12 minutes and finished the game in style. Even after the big third quarter run put the Pacers in control of the game, the Celtics rallied and appeared ready to ride Tatum and Jaylen Brown to a strong close. Just like the finish to the first half, Tatum and Brown and the C’s closing out a win and crushing the spirit in the Fieldhouse seemed inevitable.
But not this time. Over the final two minutes, the Pacers turned the Fieldhouse into a mad house with a 9-0 run that kept the Celtics under their thumb the rest of the way. Haliburton started it with one of his signature rainbow threes, while drawing a foul for a four-point play.
Tatum settled for a long three, which bounced giving the Pacers one stop. After Haliburton nearly had his first turnover (oh, yeah, all of that production with no turnovers), when his baseline kick out pass was intercepted by Jrue Holiday. But the ball bounced out of bounds. So, instead of going the other way, Haliburton knifed an inbounds pass through traffic to Buddy Hield for a three-ball that had every fan at the Fieldhouse realizing the win for the Pacers was now inevitable. Hield made 4 of 6 three balls to finish with 21 points.
Another stop, via steal had Haliburton find Aaron Nesmith in transition for a dunk to blow the roof off the joint and close out the 9-0 run. From there the Pacers nursed home the lead until Buddy Hield splashed an uncontested three before the buzzer for the final 10-point difference.
The show Haliburton put on was the primary topic of every major media outlet and basketball podcast and blog all over the league. His numbers remain staggering and the spirit with which he runs the Pacers and accrues those number is simply scintillating.
The ‘others’ come up big
We saw how much better the Pacers fared against the Celtics with Tyrese Haliburton in the lineup. But with all of the attention on the star point guard, it is easy to overlook the impact other players in the rotation have, and must have, when the Pacers win. Look no further back than last week when Hali had 44 points and 10 assists in a loss to the Miami Heat. Is and always will be a team game.
The Pacers hung tough through a clunky first half thanks to the other players in the rotation. Also, Carlisle played this one like a playoff game with a tighter rotation. Essentially a seven-man rotation with some spot minutes for TJ McConnell and Andrew Nembhard. Carlisle used his experience with TNT games, knowing the extended timeouts during the game allowed players more time for quick rests.
Bruce Brown stood out from the opening tip. His energy and aggressiveness set a tone for the Pacers. This was not going to be a repeat of the mess they had in Boston. Brown had 7 points, 2 assists and 2 steals in the first quarter, appearing to be in his element in a game with more stakes than usual. Brown also spilled his guts, along with Aaron Nesmith on the defensive end as the pair did what they could to slow down Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Or at least make them uncomfortable. The C’s dynamic duo combined for 62 points, but were unable to close as expected.
Aaron Nesmith came off the bench with a vengeance, appearing intent on reminding the Celtics that they gave up on him too soon. He was in lockstep with the energy and assertiveness Brown displayed, and also made a few big finishes down the stretch, including the dagger dunk that sparked a time out celebration with all of his teammates.
Myles Turner started strong and had an impactful third quarter, most notably going to work after defensive switches to post up smaller defenders and deliver over the top. He finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds.
With the tightened rotation, it was interesting to see which players would step up as the intensity of the game built. Who wants the smoke? As mentioned above, Brucie B and Nesmith were all about it. Likewise, Bennedict Mathurin was extremely aggressive off the bench. While also being poised enough to drain 4 of 7 three-pointers. Mathurin delivered 16 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists and only one turnover in over 27 minutes of play. Love the response and Benn’s ability to take advantage of the opportunity to remind the greater NBA audience that he was a lottery pick for a reason.
McConnell and Nembhard combined for nine minutes in the first half and McConnell played a bit under four minutes in the second half. Primarily, they held the fort down while Haliburton rested, but McConnell was quite active and earned Carlisle’s praise for his energy and a couple of plays he made around C’s backup center Luke Kornet.
The Pacers turned a full Fieldhouse (almost a sellout) into a full-throated energy booster for the players. The better the Pacers played, the louder the crowd. The louder the crowd, the better the Pacers played. The symbiotic relationship made for a magical night at the freshly renovated Fieldhouse. The noise and explosive reactions reminded me of the 2013 ECF Game 6 win over LeBron and the Heat. Or at least close — it’s been awhile.
One thing that helped was the short turnaround from when the game was added to the schedule last week. While there were Celtics fans in the crowd, there were far fewer than usual. For regularly scheduled games, Celtics fans from Cincy, Lousiville, St. Louis and all points within driving distance can plan to see their team at a far cheaper price point than in Chicago. The Pacers fans showed up and like the team, showed out for the national audience to enjoy.
Speaking of enjoy…along with the video highlight, please enjoy the radio highlights deliver by the legend, Mark Boyle. He, too, was in playoff form, graphically describing the action with plenty of flare. Add “Scoring! Scoring! Scoring!” and “I see the blackjack table…” to the legendary calls from past games.
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