Pacers advance over Bucks to championship game of tournament

As Tyrese Haliburton watched his step-back 3-pointer fall through the net, giving the Indiana Pacers what would become an insurmountable lead over the Milwaukee Bucks inside the final minute of the Eastern Conference semifinal in the NBA’s in-season tournament, he turned and stared at his wrist.

The implication was obvious: The closing moments of the game, which usually are reserved for “Dame Time” when Damian Lillard is involved, had become Haliburton’s time to shine this Thursday at T-Mobile Arena.

There were still 48 seconds on the clock as Haliburton celebrated, but they were a mere formality. By the time they ticked off, Haliburton — who finished with 27 points, 7 rebounds, 15 assists and no turnovers — and the Pacers had emerged with a 128-119 triumph over Milwaukee, moving Indiana into the tournament’s championship game against the Los Angeles Lakers.

“Tyrese is just one of those transcendent players,” Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said.

“With him on the court, anything is possible.”

That includes reaching the title game — something the Pacers set out to do before this tournament started — a stepping stone to the national attention they crave.

The Pacers already had knocked off the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics on their march to Thursday’s semifinal against the Bucks, who have their own superstar point guard in Lillard.

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In addition to Haliburton’s nod to “Dame Time,” he shouted, “I can do that, too!” after burying a 3-pointer in the third quarter to match one by Lillard — who scored 16 of his 24 points in the third — at the other end.

Lillard stated he thought Haliburton’s gesture was a nod toward his history in the game and acknowledged that for as many times as he has come through in clutch moments — including several times this season — he has to tip his cap when the opposition does it.

Haliburton — who grew up north of Milwaukee — said much of his drive comes from his personal admiration for Lillard.

“I think competing is fun, at the end of the day,” Haliburton told ESPN. “There was banter between us and them the whole game, and that’s just part of the competition. I’ve got so much respect for those guys. Part of the reason I wear zero is Damian Lillard, you know what I mean? Just going out there and competing. … That’s my hometown team. So the opportunity to get to compete against them … it means the world. It’s just a lot of fun to be out there competing.”

It’s certainly fun when you’re on the roll Haliburton is. His outing Thursday was just the 17th time in NBA history that a player had at least 25 points, 15 assists and no turnovers in a game — and the third time Haliburton himself has accomplished that feat this season alone.

He also led Indiana’s impressive response to the Bucks’ 43-point third quarter that put Milwaukee back into the lead, including a 9-2 run in the final minutes of the fourth quarter — capped by his step-back 3 over Brook Lopez — to close the game, much like Indiana dominated the ending against the Celtics on Monday night.

Giannis Antetokounmpo praised Haliburton extensively for the way he is playing and how he has transformed the Pacers.

“I believed my whole life that your point guard is your pace, and with the pace that your point guard plays, that’s the pace that the team plays, and he plays at an incredible pace,” Antetokounmpo said. “He plays fast, quick when he needs to. When we went to zone, he kind of slowed down and all of his team slowed down and got to their spots. Whenever he rebounds the ball, he always looks for outlets and puts — gets his teammates involved early in the game or early in the offense.

“So, as I said, you’ve got to tip the hat. He’s a great player.”

Being a great player, however, isn’t all Haliburton wants to be. As a small-market franchise that doesn’t get much attention normally, this is an opportunity for the Pacers to change that. Carlisle, Haliburton and center Myles Turner, who had 26 points and 10 rebounds Thursday, all alluded to the fact that no one was looking for Indiana to make it this far.

But Indiana has forced itself into the conversation and has put itself in a position to lift the NBA Cup at the end of the tournament Saturday night. With one game left to win, Haliburton made it clear his team isn’t satisfied with just getting this far.

“I think partially,” he told ESPN, when asked whether both he and the Pacers have accomplished their goal of becoming nationally relevant through their play thus far in this tournament.

“I think that’s part of it, for sure. But at the end of the day, the whole point is winning. “All the other stuff comes with it. When you win, you get put on national TV more. You get more attention. You get all that stuff. So it’s all part of it, but ultimately, the goal is to win.”

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