The Indiana Pacers have a bright future, with a potential All-NBA star leading a tantalizing young core that is already leading the league in points scored. But they are not winning a championship in June of 2024. Dues have to be paid, tough lessons must be learned and the defense will need to be honed before the Larry O'Brien Trophy can realistically be attained.
Therefore, Saturday's In-Season Tournament Final against the Los Angeles Lakers can be seen as their NBA Finals. Now, that does not mean Indiana can just sleep-walk through the rest of the 2023-24 campaign, but it could potentially be the defining moment of the season.
Head coach Rick Carlisle has obtained the ultimate prize in basketball before and will have his team ready to compete for the inaugural NBA Cup in T-Mobile Arena. The championship experience and Hall of Fame-level talent staring the Pacers down from the other side can be intimidating to some, but this group knows what it is at stake.
Aside from the title and $500 thousand in winnings each player and coach receives, there is a great deal of respect on the line. If Tyrese Haliburton and company can finish their incredible run in Las Vegas, the basketball world will be forced to see them in a new light.
Now that we have properly set the stage and given Adam Silver's passion project free PR, let's dive into our bold predictions for the Pacers in the NBA In-Season Tournament Final.
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Pacers defense will hold Lakers below 120 points
When you consider the fact that LA averages just 113.1 points per game (ranked 17th in NBA), this does not look like a bold statement whatsoever. But if you have been glued to the early chapters of the 2023 story of Indiana, then you also know how much the squad gives back on the defensive end.
The Pacers are right below the Washington Wizards for most points allowed in the league, making them particularly vulnerable against a Lakers team that shot almost 55 percent from the floor versus the New Orleans Pelicans in the semifinals. They turn it up a notch in the tourney, however.
Led by Myles Turner and Bruce Brown Jr., Indy held both the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks below their season scoring averages in their last two games. With the stakes at their highest, this team is at its most resistant.
I think the meticulous Turner can hold his own against Anthony Davis, so if the Pacers keep the Lakers at bay from beyond the 3-point line, a true shootout should be avoided.
Pacers will win the NBA In-Season Tournament
Piggybacking off my previous point, if Indiana decisively wins the battle in 3-point land, then its explosive offense should catapult the franchise to the NBA Cup. Tyrese Haliburton is on another plane right now.
The 23-year-old point guard is engineering a lethal attack without committing any real mistakes. He does not have a turnover in his last two games, which, again, came against the two best teams in the Eastern Conference. Los Angeles is going to be tested by its opponent's blistering offensive pace. Haliburton is hungry for the moment and will play like a man with nothing to lose.
But he is probably not going to be reckless. And that is a scary combination for the Lakers to face. LeBron James wants this midseason title just as badly, based on how he has put his body on the line and stepped up from distance. This is a big game to him, which could mean bad news for the Pacers.
Ultimately, though, I believe this is a hero's journey for Haliburton. He will get plenty of help from a sneaky deep roster that includes Buddy Hield, Bennedict Mathurin, Aaron Nesmith and Obi Toppin. No Andrew Nembhard hurts, but TJ McConnell is averaging 7.4 points and 4.2 assists in just 14.3 minutes per night.
This entire team is ready to rise above the bright lights of Vegas and steal away this crown from the king of the NBA. And the entire fan base is ready to celebrate some form of a championship.