How the Pacers and Pelicans punched their tickets to Vegas
If the group stage of the inaugural In-Season Tournament didn't sell you on the event's potency or staying power, perhaps Monday's rousing night of hoops won you over. In the first leg of the tournament's eight-team knockout stage, the Indiana Pacers upended the Boston Celtics 122-112 and the New Orleans Pelicans downed the Sacramento Kings 127-117 to advance to the semifinals in Las Vegas.
Part of the point of this tournament was to provide a national platform - and some added regular-season stakes - to teams that might otherwise go overlooked: smaller-market teams whose fan bases haven't necessarily had a ton to get excited about in recent years; teams that aren't true-blue championship contenders but who nevertheless deserve attention for playing fun and funky brands of basketball. All of which is to say, this tournament was made for teams like the Pacers and Pelicans.
The Pacers have been setting the NBA ablaze with an incendiary offense led by budding superstar Tyrese Haliburton, and they're probably the most purely exhilarating watch in the NBA right now. Even if they're doomed to come up short in the postseason (assuming they make it that far) because of their tissue-paper defense, this was a great showcase for them and for Haliburton, the latter of whom was somehow playing on TNT for the first time.
Then there are those perpetually promising Pelicans, forever tantalizing us with their length and athleticism, their depth, and their unique superstar, all while holding their breath in anticipation of the MRI result that crumbles yet another season into dust. In the fourth year of his career, Zion Williamson has still yet to experience the playoffs. You can argue this was the biggest NBA game he's ever played.
So forget the concerns about health and defense and postseason viability for now. Never mind the questions these teams will have to confront somewhere down the road. All that matters is that the first two quarterfinals of the NBA Cup gave these two small-market underdogs a moment in the spotlight. Now they're both Vegas bound while we tournament-pilled viewers prepare to follow their journey and see how deep the rabbit hole goes.
Here's how they punched their tickets to the semis.
This game, like so many others the Pacers have played this season, was decided by the brilliance of Haliburton down the stretch. He finished with a 26-point, 13-assist, zero-turnover triple-double in the win. It was a much different story in the early going, though.
The first half was competitive, but the Celtics were able to keep a lid on the Pacers' offense and slow down their typically torrid pace. Boston did a good deal of switching, but also had a good handle on when not to switch, staying attached to its assignments when Indiana ran its myriad ghost-screening actions. Jrue Holiday and Derrick White took turns haranguing Haliburton while mostly playing lock-and-trail, with Al Horford (pressed into starting center duty in the absence of Kristaps Porzingis) dropping back.
After Myles Turner shook loose for a couple pick-and-pop threes, the Celtics fiddled with their matchups and did some extreme cross-matching with Holiday, as they're inclined to do. He opened several possessions as the primary on Turner, which took some bite out of the vaunted Haliburton-Turner two-man game; Holiday would simply switch onto Haliburton while the Celtics scrammed themselves out of the accompanying mismatch on the back side, chewing up shot clock without conceding an advantage. In doing all this, Boston was able to shrink Haliburton's playmaking windows while forcing him into isolation and often squeezing him into the mid-range. He finished the first half with just seven points and two assists, and Indiana as a whole managed just 48, one of its lowest-scoring halves of the season.
At the other end of the floor, the Celtics hunted Haliburton and looked to get him switched onto Jayson Tatum. The Pacers were all too willing to concede that switch and not nearly willing enough to rescue Haliburton from that island after marooning him there. Jaylen Brown was also permitted to go to work against Obi Toppin without seeing any extra bodies, a matchup that made his eyes appropriately wide. All the while, Indiana showed a callous disregard for back-line rotations (especially when Turner got pulled out to the perimeter), allowing Boston's drivers and screen-slipping rollers to parade to the rim virtually unimpeded. The Celtics led by seven at the break.
For the most part, the Pacers' defensive issues subsisted throughout the game. The Celtics as a team shot 22-for-30 inside the restricted area, and Tatum and Brown finished with 62 combined points on 52 shooting possessions. But they also finished with just six assists compared to five turnovers, and that's part of what Indiana's help-averse defensive strategy (flawed as it is) hopes to accomplish. The Celtics did get up 41 3-point attempts (which the Pacers are otherwise better than any team at suppressing), but only 15 of those were of the "wide-open" variety, which is part of the reason Boston shot just 29% from deep.
The Pacers, meanwhile, couldn't seem to miss in the second half, driven by Buddy Hield and a rejuvenated Haliburton (aided by a halftime hit of an inhaler). They wound up shooting 19-for-40 from long range and outscoring the Celtics by 21 points from beyond the arc. Haliburton got the team back into its uptempo rhythm and started raining pull-up threes. He danced his way to 19 points and 11 assists after the break, and not even Boston's two stalwart All-Defensive guards could do a thing about it.
Turner did damage on the back end of switches, an area in which he's meaningfully improved over the last couple years. Aaron Nesmith, in what could be called a revenge game, finished some bulldozing drives while battling Tatum tooth and nail at the other end. And Bennedict Mathurin canned four triples to offset a rough night on defense. The Celtics' offense (stop me if you've heard this before) also sputtered down the stretch, undone by a lack of structure and sloppy turnovers and a few too many one-pass possessions. They really felt Porzingis' absence, with Horford unable to provide any kind of offensive pop and emergency reserve Dalano Banton destroying their spacing in his 11 scoreless minutes off the bench.
The game was tied with under two minutes to play, and then this happened:
With the Celtics switching everything, Haliburton was able to create just enough separation to bury a three over Brown, who also committed a foul in his desperate attempt to close the switch pocket. Hield ran an incredible baseline out-of-bounds route - squeezing through elevator doors on the right block before moonwalking out to the top of the arc for an open three. A Haliburton hit-ahead to Nesmith after a bad White turnover sealed the deal.
Electric finish. Electric atmosphere. Meaningful December basketball in the Hoosier State!
The biggest story of this game was Brandon Ingram, whose passing and overall decision-making were as sharp as they've been all season.
Ingram saw a variety of coverages, including plenty of blitzes, and he created good looks for himself and his teammates against all of them. Whether he was confidently strolling into pull-up threes against drops and unders (his six 3-point attempts matched his second-highest total of the season), beating traps with evasive maneuvers and gorgeous skip passes, or simply hitting tough iso mid-rangers over a dogged Keegan Murray, Ingram came up with big play after big play all night long. His 30 efficient points and six assists helped carry the Pelicans' offense on a very quiet night for Williamson.
As with the early game, this one started in a much different place than it ended. The Kings ran out to a 15-point first-quarter lead behind a barrage of dribble-handoff threes and transition layups. By the end of the quarter, however, that lead had been whittled down to one thanks to the efforts of the first three Pelicans off the bench: Naji Marshall, Jose Alvarado, and Trey Murphy III.
Alvarado and Marshall completely changed the tenor of the game with their defensive activity, blowing up those DHOs and creating turnovers that got New Orleans out in transition. Murphy, in just his second game back after offseason knee surgery, was tremendous at both ends; on top of firing up eight threes and providing sorely needed above-the-break spacing for his shooting-hungry team, he did strong defensive work as a back-line helper and held his own when asked to step out and contain the ever-shifty Malik Monk on the perimeter. He was a game-high plus-24 in his 29 minutes. It's hard to overstate the magnitude of his return to the Pelicans' rotation.
It's unclear where that leaves Dyson Daniels, the defensive ace whose role stands to diminish on account of his shooting limitations. Daniels played just six minutes in this one, and though he didn't register a point, he did a tremendous job chasing and pressuring De'Aaron Fox. He came up with two steals in the process - one of which was a wicked backhand swipe after Fox seemed to back-cut him - and finished as a plus-8 in those six minutes.
The reason the Pelicans didn't have to rely on Daniels' defense is that they had Herb Jones, who was equally up to the task of hounding Fox while contributing massively at the offensive end as well. Fox still gritted his way to 30 points, but he used 37 possessions to get there and wound up with more turnovers (six) than assists (four). Jones is the rare defender capable of containing a scorer like Fox while also helping cover for his teammates with his range and instincts as a nail defender.
At the other end, Jones made the Kings pay for their aggressive pick-and-roll coverages that left him open in the corner, burying three of his five 3-point attempts. He made timely cuts, drove closeouts, and hit Jonas Valanciunas with a couple sweet lay-down passes. He basically iced the game with a coast-to-coast drive in which he blew past Fox and threw down with two hands over Domantas Sabonis. Jones has been one of the five best defenders in basketball this year, but don't let that overshadow his offensive strides. He's up to 66% true shooting on the season!
Finally, a word about Williamson. Though he struggled to generate his own offense as the Kings pinched in to shrink his driving lanes, his offensive impact was still significant. He saw aggressive nail help basically any time he came off a screen or looked to turn the corner, and he was proactive about spitting the ball out and putting Sacramento in rotation. At one point the Kings rolled out a 3-2 zone, but they still hard-doubled Williamson when he caught the ball at the elbow, and he just kicked out to Ingram for an open three.
He's been making those kinds of selfless plays all season, but with Murphy and CJ McCollum sidelined for most of it, his passes have often come to nothing. It's a different story with those two guys - deadly shooters but also terrific closeout attackers - stationed one pass away. It's telling that New Orleans put up a 127 offensive rating in a game Williamson scored just 10 points. At full strength, this is a killer supporting cast.
Also of note: With Larry Nance Jr. injured and Cody Zeller being, well, Cody Zeller, the Pelicans rolled with Zion at center for a good chunk of this game, outscoring the Kings 35-19 in 13 minutes. Their offense flowed beautifully in those minutes, especially with Williamson able to get involved as a ball-screener, and they didn't get burned at the defensive end. Big picture, I'm pretty skeptical those lineups can actually survive on defense even though they currently have a 99th percentile defensive rating across 168 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Having the 6-foot-9 Murphy back to fill out the small-ball groups certainly helps, but even in this game, New Orleans struggled to rebound and protect the rim when it played without a true center. The Pelicans rely on packing the hell out of the paint, and they got lucky that the Kings missed a ton of threes and went 3-for-14 on wide-open looks for the game. Still, it's going to be an important potential wrinkle to monitor for this team, in Las Vegas and beyond.