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NBA

Now Is The Season Of Noticing The Indiana Pacers

Tyrese Haliburton gestures.
Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images

The Miami Heat had a very cool, very Miami Heat-ish possession in the second quarter of their home game against the Indiana Pacers Thursday night. Jimmy Butler passed out of a trap, and the ultra-sharp Heat started pinging the ball all over the place, zooming around to maximize floor spacing and zipping the ball along the arc, always a half-beat ahead of Indiana's defensive rotations. But for all the exhilarating pinball action of the sequence the Heat couldn't get all the way clear of the scrambling defense for the open shot their meticulous sharing seemed very much to have earned. Eventually Kyle Lowry had to put his head down and barrel into the paint for a desperate contested floater, which missed.

But these are the Heat of "Heat Culture," and they are almost immune to discouragement. Lowry, the shortest person on the floor, came down with the offensive rebound; immediately the ball was pinging around again with the same insane lightning precision, and the Pacers were once again flying desperately out to the arc to chase Heat shooters off of their spots. This breakneck sequence finally ended nine seconds later, when the ball outraced the Pacers defense into the hands of extremely cool Heat rookie Jaime Jaquez Jr., who launched and drilled a three-pointer from the top of the key.

I'm not exaggerating when I say it has been years and possibly a decade since the Washington Wizards have produced any five-second sequence of that sort of delirious mind-meld ball-movement. It takes vision, and court awareness, and belief in your teammates, and the ability to distinguish inside the span of a single breath the difference between a good shot and a great one, and it requires that those traits are present in all five players in the lineup out there on the court. It is, in other words, impossible to manage when you employ Jordan Poole on your basketball team. The Heat do this shit all the time. It's more than good offense. Force a defense to scramble at maximum speed for a couple of possessions in a row, demonstrate for them that they will never catch up to the basketball, and punctuate the lesson with open three-pointers or uncontested layups, and some of the fight will waft out of the opposition, like steam from a baked ham, and vanish into the air.

What made this particular sequence noteworthy and funny, though, was what happened next. The Pacers did not call a timeout. Instead, they inbounded the ball to Tyrese Haliburton, who to that point in the game had 20 points. Haliburton waited a beat for his teammates to spread out the defense, and then he threw a move at his defender, stepped back, and splashed home a contested 28-foot three-pointer. On Indiana's next possession, following a Heat basket, Haliburton dribbled his defender inside the arc, jammed it into reverse, created a sliver of space, and splashed home a contested 27-foot three-pointer. For good measure, Haliburton ended Miami's subsequent possession with a steal, leading eventually to another Pacers bucket. The sequence extended Indiana's lead to 11 points, and the Heat started double-teaming Hailburton after that.

Indiana didn't win the game. Miami stopped turning the ball over in the second half, which forced the Pacers to play a slower game than what they prefer, against a more prepared Heat defense. Indiana's half-court offense needs some work. Nevertheless I come before you today to say that the Indiana Pacers are fun as hell, and that Tyrese Haliburton rules. He finished the game with a 44-point double-double. Haliburton leads the NBA in assists with nearly 12 per game. He is shooting 52 percent from the floor; he is knocking down a preposterous 45 percent of nine three-point attempts per game.

Some of why Indiana lost is detectable even in that sequence of heroic Haliburton possessions. The Heat are well-oiled and relentless. The Pacers, meanwhile, need the game to proceed with a certain tempo and a certain chaos in order for their style to really sing, and they require heroics from their best player to salvage situations where just having one jillion guards on the court at the same time isn't flustering the opponent into surrender. The Pacers are scrappy and fun and possibly even good, but right now they appear to be more play-in good than top-six good. It would be tragic but also not very surprising if yet another truncated swoop through the unsexy part of the draft lottery left the Pacers short on the kind of big-time talent teams generally need in order to crack into the top part of a conference hierarchy. That has been Indiana's thing for so long now that it feels wrong whenever the East's ninth seed is won by anyone else. By common law it ought to be considered Pacers property.

But Haliburton, at least, appears to have made The Leap. He is the kind of offensive dynamo that can raise a team's floor all the way up toward playoff territory single-handedly. And he is the kind of genius-level playmaker that can elevate wayward stiffs into useful weapons. Obi Toppin, who failed to hold down a rotation job for a Knicks team that was desperate to make him into a local hero, becomes a dangerous finisher in Haliburton's orbit. Indiana has a glut of zippy little combo guards who would be wildly out of their depth as primary ball-handlers, but next to Haliburton they get to do lots of cool catch-and-go stuff, ambushing rotating defenses or running quick two-man games on a floor tilted to their advantage. You look at Indiana's roster and you crinkle up your nose and say "Woof," and then you watch Haliburton run the show and it starts to make sense, and even to become really strikingly fun.

It is an autumn tradition, to have feelings about the Indiana Pacers during the part of the season when it is still possible to imagine them doing anything other than winning 38 games and failing to make any kind of impression in the postseason. Usually by March it is possible and maybe even advisable to forget that the Pacers even exist. Someday it will be different! This could be the year! Certainly in Haliburton they now have one of the NBA's coolest young players. If they win 38 games this season, at least they will be 38 very cool wins. That's not nothing.

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