The Indiana Pacers and Brooklyn Nets squared off for what was already the third of their four-game season series just a little over a month into the new NBA campaign.
After they split their first two meetings, the Pacers took a come-from-behind 128-117 win on the strength of another masterful performance by Tyrese Haliburton. The third-year guard tallied 21 points, six rebounds, 15 assists, and four steals in what has become a typical line for him. It was his fourth consecutive outing with at least 14 assists and he has had at least 11 in eight of his last nine appearances.
Beyond taking the lead in their head-to-head with the Nets, Indiana’s win highlighted the divergent paths that these two teams have taken from the consensus preseason expectations that were set upon them by pundits.
The Pacers were expected to be a lottery team and were constantly involved in trade rumors surrounding their veteran players, particularly Myles Turner and Buddy Hield. Instead, they have shot up the standings by winning six of their last seven games. They currently sport an 11-7 record that has them at fourth place in the Eastern Conference behind only the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, and Cleveland Cavaliers.
Meanwhile, Brooklyn has not recovered from losing five of their first six games and sit in 11th place in the East with a 9-11 win-loss card. The Nets were expected to compete for a title this season, but injuries to several key role players and the latest off-court controversy involving Kyrie Irving have weighed on their aspirations.
Though there are many factors that can be pinpointed to explain Indiana’s surprising start and the disappointing showing of Brooklyn, teamwork has been the one common theme that has had an outsized influence on their results so far.
The Pacers are third among NBA teams in assists per game with 28.3 and a major reason for that is the 22-year-old Haliburton who leads all players with 10.9 a contest. Indiana gave him the keys to their offense when they acquired him at last February’s trade deadline and he has flourished in the spotlight.
Aside from his league-leading assist numbers which are a career-high, his averages of 19.8 points, 2.8 threes, and 4.4 rebounds are also the highest that he has put up so far in his three-year NBA stint. Furthermore, he is also averaging 1.7 steals and is posting impressive shooting splits of 48/39/86.
Indiana is clearly Haliburton’s team now and what makes him special, like so many of the great point guards before him, is that he makes his teammates better. Seven other Pacers are averaging at least seven points per game, led by rookie Bennedict Mathurin who is putting up 19.4 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game in a reserve role.
Furthermore, their starting center Turner is having the best statistical season of his eight-year NBA career. The 26-year-old is averaging 18.6 points, 8.4 rebounds. 1.4 assists, 0.8 steals, and 2.8 blocks per game. With the way that he is playing, the price that aspiring contenders will have to pay to pry the 6’11 center away from Indiana has certainly gone up. It will be interesting to see if they eventually decide on keeping him, especially with the way he has meshed with Haliburton in the pick-and-roll.
The Pacers are suddenly on the come-up and it seems like their plans of tanking for Victor Wembanyama have hit a snag. However, this team that they currently have is a promising one in itself and a few more tweaks could turn them into a more legitimate playoff contender.
Teamwork, inspired by the unselfish and selfless play of Haliburton, has allowed them to thrive and this kind of alignment bodes well for their future. He looks like a perfect fit for Indiana and, once again, the future looks bright for this franchise that never seems to bottom-out, yet can never get over that championship hump.