For a tanking team, these Indiana Pacers sure do win a lot of games | Opinion

Gregg Doyel
Indianapolis Star

INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana Pacers aren’t tanking. Hell, they’re barely losing anymore. Why is this happening? How is a roster that everyone agreed would challenge for the league’s worst record – and by that I mean everyone – instead rising up the Eastern Conference? How have these sad little Pacers, after their 123-102 victory Monday night against Orlando, won five in a row and nine of their last 11?

Pay attention here, because I’m about to throw some hardcore basketball terminology at you. This is why our humble little NBA franchise has dropped out of the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes and, with its shocking 10-6 record, into the race for home court in the first round of the 2023 NBA Playoffs:

The Pacers are passing the ball at a high level. And they are shooting the ball at a high level.

It really is that simple, though to explain it a little deeper, come with me courtside Monday night. Listen in, as Pacers reserve point guard T.J. McConnell visits after the game with Bally Sports Indiana sideliner reporter Jeremiah Johnson. They’re talking about numbers, how the Pacers posted their largest margin of victory of the season, and how McConnell finished with 17 points and 10 assists, how he made three 3-pointers – his first three of the season – in 31 minutes on the court.

McConnell is expressing surprise at the minutes.

“I don’t expect to play that much,” he was telling Johnson. “Our (starting) point guard is special.”

And now he’s heading this way, that special point guard. Tyrese Haliburton is his name. He’s had quite a game himself – 18 points and 14 assists, without playing the fourth quarter – and now he’s barging onto McConnell’s television interview to share some love with his backup.

“You were passing that thing!” Haliburton is semi-shouting at McConnell. “Passing that thing, boy!”

McConnell is smiling. Sheepish, you’d call this look.

“I just want to be like you,” McConnell tells Haliburton, and he means every word.

Nov 21, 2022; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Indiana Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton (0) shoots the ball while Orlando Magic center Mo Bamba (11) defends in the second quarter at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Tyrese Haliburton leads, Myles Turner happily follows

Let’s get back to basketball terminology. Say something as elementary as that, that the Pacers are winning because of the way they’re passing and shooting, and you’d better be ready to back it up with numbers. Luckily for you – well, luckily for me – I have those numbers.

For years the Pacers were playing the best brand of 1990s basketball in the league. Problem is, those years were from 2018-21. While the rest of the NBA was stretching the floor and shooting 3-pointers, the Pacers were crowding the lane and shooting mid-range jumpers. In 2018 they were 26th in the league in 3-pointers attempted, and 25th in 3-pointers made. In 2019 they were 29th in both. In 2020 they were 30th – there are 30 teams in the NBA – in 3-point attempts.

This season? The Pacers are third in the league in 3-pointers attempted. They’re also third in the league in 3-pointers made. Turns out, it’s easier to hit a shot when you’re wide open, thanks to a teammate making the right pass.

That’s another change for this franchise. For years the Pacers played that prehistoric halfcourt style by pounding the ball until it was flat. Victor Oladipo, Tyreke Evans and Monta Ellis – to say nothing of T.J. Warren, Lance Stephenson and Domantas Sabonis – loved to dominate the ball.

This group, led by Haliburton’s league-leading 10.5 assists per game, has become a team that zips the ball all over the court. The Pacers are tied for second in the NBA with 28.3 assists per game, behind only Golden State.

In the postgame interview room, the Pacers’ top two passers are at the podium. I’m asking a question of McConnell, but I’m doing it by pointing at Haliburton. He leads the league in assists, I’m telling McConnell – as if he didn’t know – but is he contagious?

McConnell knows what I mean. And he’s nodding.

“When your starting point guard is as willing as (Haliburton) to give people the ball, it does become contagious,” McConnell says. “He does it better than anyone in this league, the way he’s able to get people going, but not forcefully. He does it so naturally that our offense looks smooth. It’s truly, truly special to watch.”

Haliburton is the star this franchise has been missing since Reggie Miller, not merely a transcendent talent – Paul George was that; so was Oladipo, before his brutal injury in 2018 – but a transcendent talent who is a joy to play alongside. Haliburton came here, to a veteran team, and was instantly beloved by teammates. You can see that during pregame warmups, when Haliburton gets the honor of being the last Pacers starter introduced.

This is what it looked like Monday night:

Haliburton rising from the bench as the crowd rises to its feet, heading toward the court but failing to get there because his teammates fall on him, holding him back, pummeling him gleefully. Nobody in that scrum is happier or sillier than Myles Turner, whose team could’ve been his, in other circumstances. Instead, with Haliburton here, Turner is a perfect complementary piece and looks completely at peace as he posts a career season (18 ppg, 8.3 rpg).

T.J. McConnell, who at 30 is this young team’s most prominent elder statesman, puts it like this during his post-game interview with Jeremiah Johnson:

“We have a group that wants the next person to succeed.”

Later, in the interview room – unprompted on the topic of camaraderie – he’ll say it another way:

“We have a phenomenal group in the locker room,” he says. “We genuinely care about one another. That translates on the court as well.”

Victor Wembanyama would’ve been nice. But even the team with the league’s worst record will have just a 14% shot at winning the No. 1 overall pick. What we’re seeing now? It’s more of a sure thing.

Puppies adorable at halftime, Pacers adorable all game

You’re not getting out of here without hearing about the puppies. They’re a metaphor for these Pacers – young, happy, adorable – but never mind that. I don’t need to justify describing the halftime show Monday night by making a basketball comparison. All I need to do is show you what happened:

It’s the PetSmart Puppy Race, all capital letters, and this was the first time they’ve tried it at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. Better not be the last time, even if it didn’t go exactly as planned. See, the puppies wouldn’t race. They wouldn’t even move! There were nine puppies in all, a bunch of Terrier mixes named after pastries – Tart, Crème Brulé, etc. – and each one sat on its puppy pad, wearing its puppy diaper (!!!), in front of a member of the Pacemates dance team.

Not one puppy would leave its pad. The first puppy across the court, maybe 30 feet away, was going to win, but these puppies weren’t budging. Most of them were asleep, even as the crowd was moaning loudly at the cuteness, and finally a few Pacemates took the initiative by rising and carrying their contestant, lofted high above – Lion King style – toward the finish line.

The winner was Cannoli. Seriously, that was the puppy’s name.

The second half started next, and what a letdown that was, though the Pacers tried their best. They were sharing the ball, Bennedict Mathurin finding McConnell for a corner 3, Aaron Nesmith finding Buddy Hield for a corner 3, and on one memorable play, Haliburton finding McConnell for a layup in transition, only to have McConnell decide Haliburton deserved to score, and passing it back to him under the rim.

I just want to be like you.

Best pass of the night, though, belonged to Haliburton. No, not his no-look bounce pass to Jalen Smith for a dunk in the first quarter. No, not his spinning jump pass in transition in the second quarter, when he soared into the air with belief that someone, somewhere, would be open – and sure enough there was Oshae Brissett for an open 3-pointer.

No, the best pass of the night came during Haliburton’s drive to the basket in the third quarter, when he spotted Smith cutting to the rim. In one moment Haliburton was dribbling, and in the next he was pushing the ball ahead to Smith, then raising his hands in that classic look of innocence:

Wasn’t me.

Yeah it was. Yeah it is. Haliburton is guilty of turning this stodgy, backward franchise into something modern, something fun. Something good? So far, sure.

The Pacers are fourth in the Eastern Conference, just 2½ games out of first, and if they can re-sign Myles Turner and turn their bounty of future first-round picks into one more special player for next season, who knows? Maybe they’ll be close to becoming something great.