LAS VEGAS — As Tyrese Haliburton watched his stepback 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 intention 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 on this Thursday afternoon 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, Indiana had emerged with a 128-119 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks, moving the Pacers into the championship game against either the Los Angeles Lakers or the New Orleans Pelicans.
Much like Indiana did on Monday, when it upset the Boston Celtics, the Pacers closed this game out in the final minutes, as a 9-2 run from the 2:40 mark of the fourth, when Lillard hit a pair of free throws to pull the Bucks to within one, and Haliburton’s stepback 3-pointer, sealed the win for the Pacers.
Indiana has made this a tournament a priority going back to the start of the season, looking at it as an opportunity to put the small-market Pacers on the map — and, for Haliburton, who finished with 27 points, 7 rebounds and 15 assists, a chance to make himself into a household name after making his first All-Star appearance last season and playing for Team USA this summer.
And, after upsetting the Philadelphia 76ers on their way to winning their group in pool play, and then shocking the heavily favored Celtics at home Monday night to make it to Las Vegas, the Pacers found themselves in another battle against a big favorite Thursday afternoon against Milwaukee.
The tournament finally arrived in Sin City this week, after a month’s worth of group stage games and quarterfinals in Indianapolis, Sacramento, Milwaukee and Los Angeles across Monday and Tuesday nights.
Because the league wanted to have both semifinals played Thursday, and needed to have enough time between games for players to properly warm up, the Milwaukee-Indiana game had an unusual start time by any NBA standard: 2 p.m. local on a Thursday afternoon.
Not surprisingly, it took awhile for both teams to get their engines running. But it was Indiana that got started first, outscoring Milwaukee 36-22 in the second quarter to take a 63-51 halftime lead behind 16 points from Myles Turner and 11 points and 7 assists from Tyrese Haliburton – who is still dealing with the after-effects of an upper respiratory infection that caused him to miss Saturday’s win over Miami, and struggle with his breath in the first half of Monday’s win over Boston, and could be seen blowing his nose at points during this one.
But after a sluggish first half for Milwaukee — and particularly for Lillard, who missed his first seven shots, and was 2-for-10 overall — things finally started clicking in the third quarter.
The Bucks stormed back into the game, opening the quarter on a 27-9 run to retake the lead, and Lillard was at the center of all of it, scoring 16 points while going 4-for-4 from both behind the 3-point arc and at the free throw line in the quarter. That performance helped get Milwaukee to 43 points in the third quarter, and allowed the Bucks to take a 94-91 lead into the fourth, and setting the stage for Haliburton to take over.
But Lillard only had 8 points in the other three quarters of the game, while Giannis Antetokounmpo led Milwaukee with 37 points and 10 rebounds.
Because of the odd start time, it took awhile for T-Mobile Arena to fill up. The seats were a little more than half-full when the game tipped off, though by halftime it was north of 80 percent.
Playing on a red-and-blue court in the same style of those used throughout the league during pool play, and under theater lighting centered on the court, the game had the appearance of being a show — in keeping with the city it was being played in.