PHILADELPHIA — Earlier this week, in between games against the Philadelphia 76ers, Tyrese Haliburton hunkered down at his hotel with skills coach Drew Hanlen to watch film. The focus was familiar. Despite his eye-popping percentages, Haliburton can be a reluctant shooter at times. His bashfulness is the Indiana Pacers’ first-world problem. The point of emphasis this time was ball screens; he had chances to shoot coming off them in Sunday’s win over Philadelphia, but didn’t.
Tuesday, Haliburton smoked the 76ers for 33 points and 15 assists — the first 30/15 game of the season. Haliburton was magnetic in the victory, as he has been all season, the conductor of one of the league’s best offenses a few weeks into the 2023-24 campaign. The Pacers are an extension of him: free, fast and overflowing with joie de vivre as they gash teams apart at a frenetic pace. Only the Washington Wizards average more possessions per game than the Pacers, but no one has more fun.
Haliburton is in control, of Indiana and himself. The Pacers are scoring more points per game than any other team (it’s not close) and they have the league’s most efficient offense. Haliburton is quickly mastering his flaws — his tendency to overlook the shots he should be taking — and turning into an All-NBA player. He is averaging an unprecedented line this season of 24.5 points and 12.5 assists per game – no player has ever averaged more than 24 points and 12 assists in a season, and only Magic Johnson has come close.
“He’s special,” Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said. “What else can I say?”
The Pacers and Haliburton have found a singularity. Haliburton is not just driving the Pacers’ system, he is the system. The offense flows from his willingness to create and push the pace, find teammates and the spacing his shooting and playmaking provides.
Haliburton likes to run and get out in the open floor and put pressure on defenses, and the Pacers have leaned in during this 7-4 start. They traded for Obi Toppin and unleashed him from New York, where he had to play in a stoplight offense. They signed Bruce Brown from Denver, adding a ball-moving swing player. They got even faster on purpose. Indiana played at the fifth-swiftest pace in the NBA last season, and this year they’re second, averaging more than two extra possessions per game. The Pacers were, on average, the fourth-quickest team to get to a shot last season, according to inpredictable, and they’ve sanded down a few tenths of a second from that this season to lead the league. They gas it off of made shots, taking a full half-second less than any other team to find theirs.
The Pacers play so fast, and yet so in control, that speed is their weapon.
“It’s our biggest strength,” Haliburton told The Athletic. “Teams don’t want to run with us. Nobody. I don’t care who it is. Nobody wants to run with us. I’m relatively young, but that’s just the way I play basketball, and this organization has done a great job of allowing me to spread who I am throughout the organization and how I play throughout the organization. Guys have adapted to that and coaches adapt to that the right way. Good things are happening. My skin is crawling when we’re not getting outlets and we’re not running playing fast. I want to be the best team in the league. But teams know when you play us you have to have your track shoes ready. Like, you got to be ready to play us. So that’s a good identity to have.
“I feel like it’s a team that people want to play for. People want to play that style of basketball. And you don’t want to play against that style of basketball. Especially if you’re coming off a back-to-back or you know you got a bunch of games in a bunch of nights, you don’t want to see us.”
Tyrese Haliburton, million-dollar smile and all, could be the modern-day Reggie Miller
The 76ers can attest to that. Philadelphia had to play Indiana twice in three nights. After circling the track with the Pacers, they then had to face the Boston Celtics on Wednesday, a night after giving up 132 points to Indy in the front of that back-to-back. It was a brutal three-game stretch for the 76ers, even if they didn’t have to travel for a single game.
Haliburton was a marvel in Philadelphia. He tore apart a defense that had been the fifth-stingiest in the league until he landed there, piling up 58 points and 32 assists. He hasn’t had a turnover since last Thursday.
He has had a remarkable run in Indiana since the 2022 trade that brought him there. It allowed him to serve as the centerpiece of a franchise — what he’s always wanted — and it rejuvenated the Pacers. Most surprising, perhaps, is that Haliburton has not just taken control of the team on the floor and put up big numbers doing it. It’s that winning has also followed. It’s not often that when a young star has been given free rein, success has also come alongside it early in their career. But the Pacers are 35-31 since the start of last season when Haliburton plays.
“I think when I’m playing well, I’m engaged defensively,” Haliburton said. “And when I’m playing well, I think because if I’m scoring that means teams got to help on me and that allows me to facilitate which is what I do probably better than the majority of people in the league. So that’s what I want to do. I want to get my guys involved. So when I have it going, that gets my other teammates involved. When the ball is hopping the way it is and we’re playing the brand of basketball that we do, and then we play inspired defensively and get enough stops to win the game.”
There have been few defensive stops to this point. Indiana is allowing the NBA’s fifth-most points per 100 possessions at this point. At some point, the Pacers will have to clean up on that end to take a significant leap forward. But the offense seems to be in place, and so is the centerpiece. That could be enough to make them a playoff team, and perhaps a feisty one.
Haliburton is growing more comfortable as a scorer, realizing he needs to shoot more often. He’s even willing to shoot the bad shots he had tried so hard to avoid in Sacramento and early on with the Pacers. He uncorked a running hook shot Tuesday against the 76ers that inspired guffawing. He shared afterward that he was just feeling it.
Tyrese Haliburton pulled out the running hook shot during crunch time last night 👀
“That’s in my game…That’s been in my game since my rookie year.” pic.twitter.com/9oiQNCgggT
— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) November 15, 2023
Haliburton admits that straddling his shooting id and superego remains a work-in-progress. Some nights are better than others. He might be the rare NBA player who is better served letting go of his inhibitions and play like he’s two drinks in and taking Natasha Bedingfield’s advice on the dance floor. He is breaking the shooting efficiency curve. Haliburton keeps taking more shots, and his shooting numbers keep getting better. This season he’s taking a career-high 16.3 field goals per game, with 7.8 from 3, and has a .632 effective field goal percentage — a Steph Curry-esque mark.
But Haliburton’s passing remains the most delightful part of his game. The jump passes are works of art. Every time he leaps off the floor, it’s as time slows down and his synapses start to fire even faster.
“He’s an amazing passer and it’s a little quirky because he does a lot of it late,” 76ers head coach Nick Nurse said. “Like you think something else is happening. He jumps in the air a lot and you think he’s committing, and at the last second finds a really good past. So I think it’s just a little bit of just a different look. He plays it a little different rhythm, I think, than most guys. So that makes it difficult and he’s got great size, great vision.”
The passing numbers over Indiana’s first 11 games have already put Haliburton on a historic pace. Only five players have ever averaged more than 12 assists per game in a season. Only six players have posted an assist rate above 50 percent — Haliburton’s currently at 50.6 percent. If he finishes in that stratosphere, then his peers will be current and future Hall of Famers (and Rajon Rondo).
Haliburton does not focus on creating assists just for the sake of it. He bristles at the thought of even being seen as a stat-padder. He brought it up unprompted. His approach is a progression of how he approaches the sport.
“There a lot of dudes who have assists in the league and their mindset is ‘Shoot it when I pass it to you or I’m not going to pass to you.’ I am not like that,” he said. “I kick it ahead. I like to see the ball moving. I just think the ball finds energy so if I kick it ahead and I’m playing the right way the ball usually finds me back and allows me to play downhill. It allows me to play in the gaps. It allows me to find guys. I just try to play the right brand of basketball. So I’m not the type of guy who – there’s guys that are, ‘I’m only passing it if you’re shooting it.’ I don’t play that way. I don’t. I think the majority league knows that. Everybody knows that. I don’t play that way. So I’m just playing through the flow of the game. It’s like it’s just happens with the way I play. I think (the assist rate is) a crazy stat. I don’t know if that’s sustainable for the rest of the year.”
That might be a question about the Pacers, too. That’s often a question that finds young teams as they pop for the first time. They are scintillating, one of the league’s most interesting teams. Haliburton could be an MVP candidate if they keep up this pace, just a season after making the All-Star team for the first time. The Pacers’ offense is so hot that it has made up for a porous defense that will have to improve to sustain this start.
But as long as Haliburton is at the helm, Indiana should continue thriving.
“I’m tired of losing,” Haliburton said. “I want to win. So I’m just trying to figure out the right way to do that. For me right now, it’s get the ball in my hands and just make the right reads and I’m doing a good job with that right now. And my teammates are making shots and we’re all playing the right way. We’re playing inspired brand of basketball and we just got to continue that.”
Revisiting the Haliburton-Sabonis trade and its Pacers, Kings ramifications
- There have been an abundance of touchy technical foul calls on NBA players this season for celebrating dunks, or what can generally be described as zealous reactions. Kristaps Porziņģis received one for hanging on the rim earlier this month, one of the league-leading six techs he has already. Porziņģis seemed a little surprised to have been hit with a technical for that. He says he’s been doing the same thing for years, but he’s noticed it’s part of an early-season patter on the part of officials to whistle some post-dunk exuberance.”I think it’s maybe a little bit over-exaggerated,” he said. “Sometimes like you just want to protect yourself as a player. You don’t want to jump on the ball or while you’re swinging you know, and then you’re hanging on the rim for too long. Al (Horford) even got the tech. I think they’re gonna probably loosen up on that a little bit. But for now, I’m paying some money for it.”
- Tyrese Maxey has had a great start to the season and is undoubtedly one of the best individual stories of the season so far, but it’s been interesting to see how defenses have adjusted to him over the course of the season. Maxey put up 34 points on the Toronto Raptors in late October in a 76ers win, but the next time they played on Nov. 2, the Raptors threw OG Anunoby on Maxey — he was the second-most used defender on him, according to NBA.com — and Toronto had more success bottling him up and forcing him to get points in transition. Wednesday, the Celtics threw Jayson Tatum, another large wing, on Maxey for several possessions.“I saw a lot of different ones today,” Maxey said Wednesday night after the Celtics’ loss of the different defensive approaches. “At one point, Derrick White was face guarding me at half court. I’m just trying to figure it out. It’s new, all new for me. But I think we did a good job. You know, whoever was guarding me, I tried to be aggressive as well, not just for myself and my teammates as well.”That’s been part of the learning curve for Maxey as he has taken on, and thrived in, a lead guard role for the 76ers. Defenses have had to adjust to him, and that has, in turn, forced him to adjust to them, creating a cat-and-mouse game.“I’m trying to get to the point to where I’m in control, and I’m dictating how the game goes, and you know it’s a learning experience,” he said. “I think we’re 11 or something like that in games and I think we’ve done a really good job so far of trusting the offense, trusting coach Nurse and trusting what we’re trying to bring to the table this year.”
(Photo of Haliburton: Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)