Pacers Impress with Offensive Prowess, Yet Rely on Solid Defense to Advance to Tournament Semifinals

The Indiana Pacers entertain fans with their sprinter-like tempo and historic scoring pace.

They’re heading to Las Vegas because of defense.

After forcing seven turnovers in a game-changing third quarter and 18 overall in Monday’s 122-112 victory that eliminated title contender Boston from the inaugural NBA In-Season Tournament, All-Star guard Tyrese Haliburton took a moment to put the spotlight on something that once seemed unthinkable.

“ Our defense was there? Could you tell?” he joked. “We wanted to be in this situation all year and here we are. And it’s not just about being here, it’s about winning. So we’re excited to go to Vegas and play some more defense.”

It’s not that the league’s worst-ranked scoring defense suddenly found a magical solution.

But when the Pacers needed stops, they threw a wrinkle at Boston in the second half and managed to hold one of the league’s top teams scoreless for 86 of the final 117 seconds — long enough for Indiana to break a 105-105 tie with nine straight points.

“We just changed some things schematically on defense there. Jayson (Tatum) was doing a good job of attacking me in the first half, so we did a good job of changing it up a little bit and figuring it out defensively,” Haliburton said. “We got a couple of stops and nobody wants to run with us when we’re getting stops.”

The Pacers played so well, they were serenaded with the chant of “De-fense! De-fense!” — a throwback to coach Rick Carlisle’s first stint with the Pacers and throughout ex-coach Frank Vogel’s tenure, something few thought would return this season.

It was a 61-point turnaround from an embarrassing 155-104 loss in this season’s first matchup with Boston, one that Indiana used as motivation.

“Everybody saw what they did to us in Boston, so it was personal,” Bruce Brown said.

Offensively, there’s little doubt about the Pacers’ potency.

They entered Tuesday leading the league in field goal percentage (51.1%), assists (30.1), points in the paint (59.9), fast-break points (17.7) and scoring (128.1 points) — nearly two points above Denver’s NBA single-season record (126.5) from 1981-82.

Even after a slow start on a subpar shooting night, Haliburton capped his first triple-double with the tie-breaking four-point play. He finished with 26 points, 13 assists, 10 rebounds and no turnovers in 40 minutes while battling an illness.

Haliburton has embraced his role as the leader of this young, deep and talented team, and he’s wasted no time demonstrating he’s a perfect fit for its run-and-gun style.

He’s already broken the franchise’s NBA-era single-season mark with four games of 30 or more points and 15 or more assists this season, and his four 15-assist games are just one fewer than the other 29 teams combined.

In November, he also joined Michael Jordan and LeBron James as the only players in league history to average 27.0 points and 10.0 rebounds while shooting 50% from the field and 40% from 3-point range over a full month. Jordan first did it in March 1989; James matched the feat in February 2017.

“It’s clear that this evolution is ongoing and it’s erupting before our very eyes,” Carlisle said, referring to his 23-year-old budding star. “I thought we tried to spell him when we could and he still ended up playing 40 minutes, but that’s what happens in playoff games. That’s how it goes. He’s a spectacular player and I know that (Jayson) Tatum got player of the month, but I’m sure Tyrese was right there.”

After Indiana bounces Boston from the In-Season Tournament, Kenny Smith explains the value provided by the early test.

The bigger question: How long can the Pacers keep playing two-way basketball?

Despite spending most of the offseason talking about improved defense, it didn’t show up in the numbers over the first quarter of the season. They’re still allowing 125.2 points, perhaps a byproduct of playing so fast.

But after winning the first tournament game, becoming the first group winner and the first semifinalist, they’re hoping to leave Vegas as the first champion.

And they want to maintain that winning formula for the rest of the season.

“If we want to get to the playoffs and beat an elite team, obviously that’s where we have to hang our hats,” two-time blocked shots champ Myles Turner said. “The old saying is offense wins games, defense wins championships. I’m a big believer in that myself so if we keep winning games, we’ll figure it out on defense.”

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