Lakers-Pacers preview: Tyrese Haliburton ready to face idol LeBron James

El base de los Pacers de Indiana Tyrese Haliburton grita tras una jugada en la semifinal de la Copa de la NBA ante los Bucks de Milwaukee el jueves 7 de diciembre del 2023 en Las Vegas. (AP Foto/Ian Maule)

Indiana coach Rick Carlisle, who played in the NBA as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar neared retirement and coached as Michael Jordan ended his playing days with Washington, doesn’t view LeBron James through the same lens, apparently.

“LeBron James is in his prime still. I'm watching the guy last night, and it's phenomenal,” Carlisle said Friday. “This is a guy — someone just gave me the stat. 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.”

There are no surprises when it comes to James and the Lakers (14-9), the team rolling into the in-season tournament finals Saturday on a three-game winning streak. They’ve handled their business to get here mostly with ease and rolled over the New Orleans Pelicans in the semifinals Thursday night.

James, should the Lakers win, is a lock to be chosen tournament MVP.

Yet as Carlisle talked about James’ place in league history, he did so in the context of talking about the NBA’s bright future. And he just might be coaching a player who will be a huge part of it.

Lakers forward LeBron James flashes his team's sign for making a three-point basket.
Lakers forward LeBron James reacts after making a three-point basket against the Pelicans during the in-season tournament semifinal Thursday in Las Vegas. (Ian Maule / Associated Press)

Guard Tyrese Haliburton is averaging 26.9 points and 12.1 assists while hanging around the hallowed 50-40-90 shooting percentage splits for field goals, threes and free throws. He has helped transform Indiana (12-8), also on a three-game winning streak, into one of the NBA’s most exciting teams, and Friday as he bounced around during a media session, he basked in the spotlight.

“I just think for us, 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, and it's been a lot of fun.

“But it's not done yet. We've got to be prepared to go tomorrow and approach that game the right way.”

After the Lakers' win Thursday, coach Darvin Ham said he didn’t have the recipe for slowing Haliburton and the Pacers — though it’s a safe bet it involves emerging defender Cam Reddish and anchor Anthony Davis.

“Two of the ingredients that show up in that recipe are making multiple efforts and having a next-play mentality,” Ham added Friday. “That's key because they're a fast team. They play with a lot of pace. They have a lot of guys that can function at a high level off the dribble, a lot of pick-and-rolls.

“So, you definitely have to be — have your track shoes on, come with the energy, the level of discipline we try to play with each and every time we step on the court.”

Most experts view the Lakers as a mild favorite with L.A. resting ahead the finals. James and Davis didn’t participate in Friday’s media session, while D’Angelo Russell and Max Christie were the only rotation players to get on the court and practice shooting.

Read more: LeBron James master class lifts Lakers into NBA in-season tournament final

The Lakers have maintained similar routines throughout the first chunk of the season, prioritizing rest. Saturday, they’ll need the energy against a Pacers team that’s ready to run.

“Definitely going to relish the moment. I think the biggest thing I'm expecting is the level of competition. Obviously, you see in these in-season tournament games just how the competition is a little bit different than like a regular game and whatnot,” Pacers center Myles Turner said.

“Just the environment, man, just as an athlete, you relish the moments. Those are the ones you dream of, like the big shot, like the big possessions towards the end of the game and whatnot. I'm really just looking forward to the opportunity.

“We obviously want to win. We have a championship mindset going into it.”

With Haliburton, they believe the upset is possible. But James is in the way.

“Like any kid born in 2000, LeBron was my favorite player growing up, and it's hard for him not to be for a lot of us. Growing up, I was a Cavs fan, then a Heat fan, then a Cavs fan again, then a Lakers fan before I got drafted. It's just how it went,” Haliburton said. “To be able to compete against him in a championship is kind of like a storybook a little bit, and it's going to be a lot of fun.

“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.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.