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‘King’ James and Lakers battle Haliburton’s Pacers for first NBA Cup

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 5: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers celebrates during the game against the Phoenix Suns during the Quarterfinals of the In-Season Tournament on December 5, 2023 at Crypto.Com Arena in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Adam Pantozzi / NBAE / Getty Images / Getty Images via AFP)

Tyrese Haliburton and the Indiana Pacers’ scintillating run to Saturday’s NBA Cup final has brought them nose to nose with a league great in LeBron James and a legendary franchise in the Los Angeles Lakers.

The NBA’s inaugural in-season tournament has been a coming-out party for Haliburton and the Pacers, one of 10 NBA franchises never to win a league championship.

Having dispatched the Boston Celtics and the Milwaukee Bucks in the quarter-finals and semi-finals, the young Pacers can expect their stiffest test yet from all-time scoring leader James and the Lakers, who would love to claim the first NBA Cup but acknowledge they aren’t taking their eye off the main prize of an 18th NBA title come June.

Indiana coach Rick Carlisle, who describes the Pacers as “somewhere on the climb” to becoming title contenders, said the match-up with James and the Lakers is just what his young team needs.

James, who turns 39 on December 30, delivered a master class in the Lakers 133-89 semi-final thrashing of the New Orleans Pelicans on Thursday, a performance that Carlisle said showed the four-time NBA champ “is in his prime still.”

“I’m watching the guy last night, and it’s phenomenal,” Carlisle said. “He’s the only player in NBA history who has been the youngest player in the league and the oldest player in the league, both. That speaks to obviously an amazing run of longevity and, in his case, greatness.

“He’s the all-time leading scorer, and if there’s a Mount Rushmore, he’s one of the guys on the NBA Mount Rushmore.

“That’s what we’re up against tomorrow. We’re up against him and Anthony Davis and a lot of other very good players that are on a real uptick right now competitively.

“We’ve got our hands full. But if you’re the Indiana Pacers and you’re in the process of making the climb and you want great experience, this is the kind of challenge that you’ve got to love.”

Gold standard

Haliburton, who grew up a James fan, calls him “the gold standard of basketball players.”

“Like any kid born in 2000, LeBron was my favorite player growing up,” Haliburton said. “But that’s the great part about being in the NBA is getting to compete against your idols on a nightly basis. I really look forward to that.”

Former fandom aside, Haliburton and his young teammates would love to play spoiler to the Lakers’ bid to add a new piece of hardware to their stuffed trophy case.

“We’re not supposed to be here and nobody expected us to be here,” Haliburton said. “We’ve been probably looked at to lose the majority of our tournament games.

“The Philly game, we weren’t supposed to win. Boston game we definitely weren’t supposed to win. Milwaukee, we definitely weren’t supposed to win. That’s just been part of the storybook of this.

“But it’s not done yet.”

The Pacers will be hoping to wear down the Lakers with the up-tempo offense that has entertained fans and exhausted rivals in four group-stage wins and the knockout rounds.

Haliburton has emerged as the chief orchestrator of an offense that is averaging more than 128 points per game. He leads the league in assists with more than 12 per game, and had 15, without a turnover, along with 27 points in the semi-final win over Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks.

“You definitely have to have your track shoes on, come with the energy,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said of what it will take to beat the Pacers.

But the Lakers are rounding into form after early-season injuries and with James leading the way they have the tools to get the job done, Ham said.

“You hear and feel his presence all over the place, and the guys respond,” Ham said.

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