The 2023 In-Season Tournament Championship Preview
The inaugural NBA Cup has been a doozy. Here are three questions to ponder ahead of the championship.
The In-Season Tournament has gone about as well as neutral fans could hope for. The players and coaches have played to win, the games have been fun, and the storylines an ideal mix of tactically intriguing and soap-opera salacious (is running up the score to secure a tiebreaker against The Spirit Of The Game, or just smart strategy? Is Tyrese Haliburton becoming a master sh*t-talker?).
The championship sets up the perfect conclusion. On one side, we have the Los Angeles Lakers, the big-market, big-legacy Goliaths. LeBron James has put forth the kind of effort he usually reserves for playoff games, and while the prize money is nice, it’s clear he’s determined to add yet another bullet point in his quest to become the undisputed GOAT.
On the other side, we have the frolicking, rollicking Indiana Pacers, who live up to their name by playing at a foot-blistering pace and throwing lobs from every which angle. National audiences are being introduced to the wonder of Tyrese Haliburton. His three 25-point, 15-assist, zero turnover games in the last month would be the most in NBA history for a career — nobody else (including James, across 21 seasons) has more than one.
James will put forth a monstrous effort Saturday night, of that you can be sure — but it might not matter if the Pacers keep playing this way. They went 4-0 in group play, then beat two of the league’s championship favorites in Boston and Milwaukee to secure their spot in the ‘ship. But the Lakers, on paper, present a uniquely nightmarish matchup for an Indiana team with such profound strengths and weaknesses.
I have some questions about the championship. Let me know what you think in the comments!
What does a win mean?
Before we get to the stats and strategy, let’s talk about meaning.
For the Lakers, a win would add yet another trophy to a long line of them. The Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers are tied with 17 NBA championships; the NBA Cup certainly doesn’t become number 18, but you better believe Lakers fans would relish adding some hardware that Boston doesn’t have. It’s fun to make history!
Of course, LeBron is playing a different game. At his age, most achievements are just baubles to be collected (“Another All-Star appearance? Toss it in the basement with the rest.”). He’s adding bullet points to his all-time resume; being the winner of the inaugural In-Season Tournament would be a fine addition, worthy of at least bold font.
The stars’ clear efforts and interest in winning have already validated the tourney, but a Lakers win might further cement its legitimacy (it’s already the greatest innovation since the three-point line to me). We would have an entire offseason of possibly the league’s biggest fanbase insisting that the Tournament is definitely important (since their team won). This isn’t a dig at Lakers fans; it would be the same for any of the big market teams like New York, Boston, or Golden State. Having more advocates is always better than having fewer. I’d like to think the quality of the tournament so far speaks for itself, but it’s helpful to have people with a vested interest push the narrative.
For the rest of the roster, well, the money matters. Eight of the Lakers’ rostered players make less than $5M this season, including five making less than $3M. $500K would be a substantial bonus (if it can survive the inevitable Vegas afterparty!), and that’s before we consider the coaches.
The Pacers’ roster might appreciate the money even more. Only three of their players make eight figures (compared to six for the Lakers). T.J. McConnell, who yo-yos in and out of the rotation, is the team’s fourth-highest player at just $8.7M!
The victory would be legitimately meaningful for Indiana, a franchise that has never won an NBA championship. Regardless of legacy, or banners, or money, this is something every NBA team wanted to win because it’s winnable. For the Pacers to do it would be one of the coolest moments in franchise history; for at least a full year, the NBA Cup would be something that Indiana, and Indiana only, could claim as their own. If you have any doubt whether that matters, just check the fan reaction as the Pacers clinched the quarterfinals.
And don’t forget: the Pacers’ only NBA Finals appearance was a loss in 2000 to the Shaq-Kobe Lakers. This wouldn’t make up for that, but it would make victory taste just a tiny bit sweeter.
More abstractly, it’s proof of concept that the Pacers can win important games as presently constructed. Teams with the Pacers’ statistical profile (namely, that horrific team defense) rarely see playoff success and have never sniffed a championship. Single-elimination is different than a seven-game series, but at least the Pacers are proving that they can rise to the circumstances. The defense has been palatable these last few games against two good offenses. Successfully slowing the Lakers would give this team a huge shot of confidence when the playoffs roll around that they can be predators, not prey.
It would also be the first real team success for Tyrese Haliburton, who made waves with recent comments that he’s never won anything at any level and that he’s “tired of being a loser.” Sure, that line may haunt Haliburton forever. But it was refreshing honesty from an NBA star, a demographic that too often plays to type with manufactured alpha-male answers to probing questions.
He’s not the only Pacer with something to prove. Pulling his best Snake Plissken impression, Obi Toppin escaped from New York and has found his perfect role as the league’s most eager fastbreaker. Buddy Hield is another offense-first player desperate to shed a loser label. Aaron Nesmith couldn’t find consistent minutes on the Boston Celtics team he just had a major hand in defeating. Myles Turner was on the trade block for so long, he bought some property and built his own ranch-style house, complete with a dedicated Lego room (seriously, you should click that link).
As a franchise, the Pacers have spent the post-Paul-George era wandering in desolate mediocrity. But right now, this team of misfits and Haliburton are the most exciting squad in the league, and they have a real shot to give fans and players a rare taste of triumph.
Can the Lakers stifle Indiana’s halfcourt offense?
Alright, let’s move to the more granular. Unlike some teams (*cough Toronto cough*), Indiana’s transition attack isn’t a critical load-bearing support beam. In fact, Indiana leads the league in halfcourt offense as well, by a monstrous margin.
It starts, like all things Pacers, with Haliburton. But coach Carlisle might be the league’s cleverest play designer, and he mixes and matches intricate actions to keep the offense humming. The surrounding cast is filled with high flyers, canny cutters, and enough shooting to keep defenses honest.
A key component to the halfcourt offense is the Buddy Hield ghost screen, in which he sprints to set a pick but then veers away before actually making contact to spring open for a shot. Ideally, defenders get confused for just a half-second, panicking at the idea of Haliburton having a runway to the hoop; unfortunately for them, Hield is as automatic a non-Curry shooter as there is. This is poor defense by Miami and a practice shot for Hield (#7 in white):
But sticking to Hield causes its own problems. This is a different set (in fact, I doubt this was a designed ghost screen; it looks like Hield was initially going to be the second screener in a Spain pick and roll), but you can see that Hield’s side-shuffle to the three-point line instead of setting the screen forces OG Anunoby (my Defensive Player of the Quarter, don’t forget!) to turn his back to the ball and stick with Hield, opening the Red Sea for an easy Haliburton floater:
These are not complicated plays, but they don’t always have to be when you have a shooter like Hield and a point guard like Haliburton.
They have plenty of moments where all five players are involved in the action, scrambling defenses until a breaking point is found and tested. The Pacers’ shooters are the league’s best at relocating along the perimeter to open passing lanes and confuse defenses.
Add all that to the laser-quick transition attack, and you get an offense that is top-10 in both rim frequency and three-point frequency while also being top-10 in accuracy at both spots. In sum, Indiana has the league’s best effective field goal percentage by far.
The Lakers’ defense, meanwhile, is predicated on length everywhere. Anthony Davis is still one of the best defenders in the NBA, LeBron is a basketball super-processor, and the team’s only real weak link, D’Angelo Russell, doesn’t usually close games that matter.
The Lakers have the league’s fourth-best halfcourt defense, and it’s better than that when they have their five best defenders on the floor. They just squeezed the life out of the Pelicans with a playoff-worthy gameplan, ignoring the team’s weakest shooters to an insulting degree and crunching down on Brandon Ingram, CJ McCollum, and Zion Williamson with waves of defenders:
Concerns about LeBron’s regular-season effort overshadow the fact that he’s still an elite one-on-one defender when he deems it necessary. He took two charges on Zion and helped hold him to just 13 points and three assists.
Lineups with LeBron James and Anthony Davis allow a beggarly 106.3 points per 100 possessions, in the 95th percentile. They never foul, force shots that defenses want offenses to take, and clean the glass. Surrounding those two with some combination of Taurean Prince, Cam Reddish, Austin Reaves, and Max Christie blots out the sun.
Davis remains an All-World destroyer on this end. He’s one of the few rim protectors good enough to hang with Indiana’s perimeter actions and still snuff out attempts at the rim. For all their machinations in the halfcourt, Indiana only has two truly knockdown shooters in Haliburton and Hield; everyone else is more eager than accurate. If Davis has license to roam, roam he will:
Myles Turner, the Pacers’ center, hasn’t found his stroke yet this season. It wouldn’t shock me to see Lebron and Davis ignoring him on the outside to focus on more pertinent threats, and Davis is good enough to help up high but still recover on Turner’s harder rolls to the basket (as is LeBron, assuming he gets some time on Turner). The Pacers would be wise to do everything they can to keep Davis out of the play.
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