The first semifinal matchup of the NBA In-Season Tournament did not disappoint as the Indiana Pacers outlasted the Milwaukee Bucks for a thrilling 128-119 win. Tyrese Haliburton and Co. are now on to Saturday’s championship game, where they’ll face either the Los Angeles Lakers or New Orleans Pelicans.
After an even first quarter, the Pacers surged in front and took a double-digit lead into the break thanks in large part to their bench, which was led by the scrappy TJ McConnell. That second unit simply outworked the Bucks and gave the Pacers some extremely valuable minutes while Haliburton was off the floor.
You knew the veteran Bucks weren’t going to quit, though, and they came out swinging in the third quarter. Damian Lillard, who had just four points in the first half, led an explosive 25-9 run to re-take the lead and rained in four triples in the frame. That set the stage for would would be a fantastic fourth quarter.
The two sides continuously traded baskets until Haliburton took over and called game with a personal 5-0 run in the closing 90 seconds. He finished with 27 points, seven rebounds and 15 assists and either scored or assisted on 61 of the Pacers’ 128 points.
Here are three key takeaways from the game:
1. Haliburton is the IST’s success story
Tyrese Haliburton has been one of the best players in the league this season and put together an unbelievable November that had him in the history books next to Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Even so, he was flying under the radar with the Pacers, who play in a small market and are rarely on national TV.
That all changed with the In-Season Tournament. Haliburton has kept up his incredible form and turned into the breakout star of the event. The Celtics and Bucks are the Eastern Conference’s two powerhouses, and he’s knocked them out in back-to-back games with flawless performances.
Any questions about whether the inaugural IST would work well have truly been answered now. The players care, the games have been awesome and it provides a stage for guys like Haliburton to be exposed to a national audience. Regardless of how the Pacers do in the championship or the rest of the season, he’s now a household name.
2. Haliburton’s playmaking sorcery
Late in the first half, Haliburton was driving to the basket and hoping to find Myles Turner for one of their patented pick-and-roll combinations, but Brook Lopez did a great job sticking with him, while Giannis Antetokounmpo slid over to help on Turner. It seemed as though Haliburton, who loves to jump on his passes, was going to be stuck in mid-air, but he somehow spotted Obi Toppin on the opposite wing and whipped the ball right into his shooting pocket for an easy 3.
The highlight reel dime to Toppin was by far the best assist on what was another brilliant playmaking night for Haliburton, who finished with 15 assists and zero turnovers. That after going for 13 assists and no turnovers a few nights ago in the quarterfinals against the Celtics.
For the season, Haliburton is now averaging a league-leading 12.1 assists to just 2.2 turnovers per game. Only Fred VanVleet (5.50) has a better assist-to-turnover ratio than Haliburton (5.43) among those playing at least 30 minutes per game. Furthermore, Haliburton now has three games this season with at least 25 points, 15 assists and zero turnovers. No other player has more than one such game in their entire career.
His ability to create great looks for himself and his teammates without ever wasting possessions is simply incredible.
3. Bucks’ defense shredded again
As expected, the Bucks have been an offensive juggernaut, especially in recent weeks. Look no further than their 146-point outing against the Knicks in the quarterfinals, during which they shot over 60%, both from the field and 3-point range. They have two of the best and most unique scorers in the league, and often times the Giannis Antetokounmpo-Damian Lillard one-two punch is too much for opponents.
The problem is they give up nearly as many points as they score, which puts immense pressure on Antetokounmpo, Lillard and the supporting cast to show up every single night. When they don’t, the Bucks can’t fall back on their defense to save them like they could in recent years.
This game was a perfect example. Antetokounmpo was awesome, finishing with 37 points on 13-of-19, but Lillard went 7-of-20 from the field and the bench scored 13 points on 18 shots. On the other end, the Pacers did whatever they wanted, racking up 128 points on 49% shooting, and that was despite missing a bunch of great looks from 3. For large stretches of the second half they even went to a zone, but that was just as futile as their man-to-man effort.
After the loss, the Bucks are down to 22nd in the league in defensive rating at 115.6. The only teams with winning records that have been worse than them defensively are the Mavericks and the Pacers. While they’ve survived to this point with elite offense and timely defense late in games, the Bucks’ inability to stop their opponents remains a big concern.