NBA Cup Championship Game Preview: Veteran Lakers vs. upstart Pacers

Indiana Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton shoots in front of Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Indianapolis, Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023. The Lakers defeated the Pacers 112-111. (Michael Conroy/AP Photo)

The goal at the outset of the NBA In-Season Tournament was to elevate the coverage of the league during what is usually a quiet period at the outset of the season. Specifically, after the shine of a new year starts to wear and before the drama mill of the trade deadline starts to get rolling. To that end, it’s been nothing but a success. 

Perhaps not as much of a stated goal, but an outcome nonetheless, has been the elevation of a team, and more specifically a player, that not enough fans were paying attention to. Perhaps one of the next faces of the league and an obvious up-and-comer with the perfect blend of talent, potential and showmanship: 

LeBron James

Watching him play this well at this point in his career on a stage that has become bigger than anyone could have expected at the outset of the inaugural NBA Cup, it’s everything NBA commissioner Adam Silver could’ve dreamed of when putting together the script earlier this season. 

Kidding aside, what the tournament has done, and the matchup set to grace Las Vegas on Saturday, is a perfect culmination and conclusion to what has been a stellar event for the NBA. 

“A storybook ending,” Indiana Pacers superstar guard Tyrese Haliburton told reporters about the Finals matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers and “favourite player growing up” James. 

In case it wasn’t clear, Haliburton is the implied aforementioned player deserving of the hyperbolic next face of the league with a perfect blend of talent, potential and showmanship. The tournament has given him and his Pacers a chance to shine, and they’ve run (at blistering speeds) with that opportunity, showing off a league-bending offence, historical efficiency numbers, and some well-placed arrogance after taking down two Eastern Conference favourites in the prior stages. 

On the other end, what was said about James remains true. In his 21st season, he has shown absolutely no signs of slowing down, and his utter demolition of the New Orleans Pelicans in the semifinal suggests that though he’s the past and present of the league, he could still very well be the future of it as well. 

Regardless, the two teams heading into the finals present a microcosm of a changing landscape across the NBA, with a new generation of emerging talent ready to make their mark and compete for hardware and on the other side of the spectrum, a generation of veterans not ready to hang it up just yet. 

With that storyline and much more to digest heading into the inaugural tournament final, here’s a preview of where the two teams stand heading into the game, a key matchup to keep an eye on and an X-factor in the winner-take-all showdown. 

You can watch the Lakers and Pacers go head-to-head on Saturday at 8:30 p.m. ET / 5:30 p.m. PT on Sportsnet One or Sportsnet+.

Series Overview

Road to Vegas
Lakers: 4-0 in group stage, beat Suns in QF, beat Pelicans in SF
Pacers: 4-0 in group stage, beat Celtics in QF, beat Bucks in SF

Prediction: Pacers def. Lakers 

The Pulse:

Dame Time is so 2019, we’re moving into the Haliburton Hour, hop on. 

Tyrese Haliburton is talking his trash and absolutely backing it up. Perhaps more a product of not enough people tuning into Pacers games, but Haliburton has never been labelled as the type of player that rubs it in after big moments. 

But then again, the spotlight has never been on him in this sort of way. He’s never had the chance to really bask in it. 

After knocking down what would be the decisive three-pointer against the Bucks in the semifinals, he took a look at his wrist to check the time, knowing full well that it was half-past Pacers. 

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“It’s our time as a group,” Haliburton told reporters after their semifinal win. “We’re playing the right way. We’re shocking the world right now.”

Haliburton carefully gives credit to the rest of the team rather than just focusing on his own celebration and his shot in the clutch, ultimately proving that he’s the leader this Pacers team is rallying behind. But as much credit as he wants to pass off to the rest of his team, Haliburton is the one that in back-to-back elimination games hit the game-sealing three-pointers. 

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The 23-year-old guard has been unbelievably efficient. After putting up a stellar 26-point, 13-assist, zero-turnover triple-double against the Celtics in the quarterfinals, he followed it up with an even more dominant outing, scoring 27 against the Bucks while dishing out 15 assists and again, zero turnovers. 

That’s a two-game total of 53 points, 28 assists and zero turnovers. Historically efficient. 

But that’s nothing new for him. As it stands, his playmaking night against the Bucks was his third 15-point zero-turnover game this season, tying the record for the most games with that stat line in a season — and it’s only December. The other two that have hit that mark three times are John Lucas in 1984 and Steve Nash in 2007

Four years into his career, Haliburton already has six of those games to his name and sits fifth on the all-time list behind Nash, Muggsy Bogues, Chris Paul and John Stockton, all of whom reached their marks in at least 14 years.

“When you’re having your moment, it’s important to be careful,” Bucks guard Damian Lillard told reporters about Haliburton after the loss. “Be humble. You never know when the tables turn.”

A team-wide breakout and an assertion that this team belongs have likely given the emerging point guard enough cache to toss humility to the side. At least for now. 

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If he wants to turn this into a stepping stone toward NBA domination, his opponent might be the best to turn to when it comes to a path to follow.

James has technically never been here before. High-stakes games, and championships on the line, that’s nothing new to the King, having spent eight straight years in the NBA Finals. But he has technically never played in the NBA Cup Finals, maybe it’s a bit different?

He also never played college basketball and therefore never got to take place in the insanity of a single-elimination tournament on the scale of March Madness.

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That hasn’t seemed to sway him whatsoever as the ageless wonder scored a hyper-efficient 30 points on 9-for-12 from the field, 8-for-8 from the line and 4-for-4 from long range. He also grabbed five boards, dished out eight assists and did it all in 22 minutes, the second-lowest mark among starters behind only teammate D’Angelo Russell with 21.

He finished the game with a season-high .966 true shooting percentage, .917 effective field goal percentage, 34.7 box plus-minus, 206 offensive rating and 91 defensive rating. His net rating of 115 was the highest single-game mark of any player this season to play at least 20 minutes.

Oh, he also had zero turnovers; how do you like them apples, Tyrese?

The Lakers went into halftime up 13 points, then proceeded to end the game in the third, outscoring the Pelicans 43-17 in the frame and choosing to rest their starters in the fourth.

The turn of the tide was apparent in the second quarter, when James took it into his own hands, scoring nine straight on increasingly longer-range three-pointers and wrapping it up in a bow with an effortless three from the logo.

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From the outset, it was clear who wanted it more. What’s so great about the tournament is that against all odds, the 38-year-old 21-year NBA veteran with four titles was still the one who wanted to win more than anyone else on the court.

Not only have his abilities not dwindled, but his mentality and need to win remain as present as ever. All the proof you need is the three charges he drew in the win over the Pelicans.

When asked if he’s too old to be taking charges like that in December, all he had to say was, “Not for that $500,000, I ain’t.”

Despite this Finals matchup on paper being young vs. old, LeBron James hasn’t shown signs of slowing down.

“LeBron James is in his prime still,” Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said during media day on Friday.

There’s no reason to expect he’s going to take it easy on the young players looking to take his crown.

X-Factor: Austin Reaves, Los Angeles Lakers

It’s been an adjustment for Austin Reaves this season.

Coming in as the Lakers’ surprise darling after putting up a stellar performance in the playoffs and being invited to play for Team USA at the FIBA World Cup, Reaves hasn’t met the expectations of a player many thought was destined to take a leap.

He started the first seven games of the season and averaged 14.0 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.0 assists on .438/.313/.783 shooting splits, a drop-off from the guy who averaged 16.9 points on .464/.443/.895 splits in the playoffs last season.

Coach Darvin Ham made the shocking choice to deploy Reaves off the bench, and since then, though his counting stats haven’t seen a jump, his efficiency has started to climb back up as he’s putting up .497/.361/.889 splits in the 15 games since being relegated to the sixth man.

Reaves loves the moment, though. In the two tournament knockout games, he’s averaging 18.5 points off the bench and has hit on 42.9 per cent of his deep looks. He also hit the dagger three to push the Lakers over the Suns in the quarterfinal, showcasing every bit of the emotion that made him a fan favourite.

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He’s an incredibly important piece for the Lakers, allowing James to take possessions off because of his gifted individual shot creation. Of the 12 shots he’s hit in the knockout rounds, eight of them have come unassisted because of his ability to score off the bounce.

He’s also been a great playmaker off the bench, as his 76 assists over his last 15 games as the sixth man are the most in the league over that period.

Though he’s nowhere near the best player on the Lakers, he’s the safety valve for a team that sits in the lower half of the league in offensive rating despite its explosive night against the Pelicans.

In a shocking twist of fate, if Hollywood wants to keep up with the glitz and pace of their Rust Belt counterpart, they’ll need Reaves to be the efficient scorer and high-energy player he proved he could be over the course of their playoff run last season.

Someone needs to go toe-to-toe with Haliburton’s energy, someone needs to match his swagger. Who better than Reaves?

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