King James, welcome to the Tyrese Haliburton Invitational.
Seriously, no words can accurately describe just how special the Pacers guard has been this season, and especially in the IST: over the past two games (the quarters and semi-finals), he has racked up a total of 53 points, 28 assists, 17 rebounds, and most impressively, zero turnovers.
However, his biggest test is yet to come. The person standing between him and glory in Vegas is simply checks note a motivated LeBron, who somehow looks like the 2012 version of himself again.
So, is Haliburton destined to raise the first IST trophy, or will LeBron add another trophy to his incredible resume?
Let’s find out.
Points in the paint
By this point, we all know the story: the Pacers have the best offense in league history (123.9 Ortg, 1st), while the Lakers rely on their elite defense (111.1 Drtg, 7th). However, LA’s playstyle seems especially conducive to scoring against Indiana, even without factoring in the latter’s lackluster defense.
On the season, the Pacers have forced their opponents into taking threes on just 25.6% of possessions, which is first league-wide by a bullet — second-place Detroit sits at 30.1%. However, Indiana also gives up the highest proportion of shots at the rim at 40.8%, which is last by a whopping 3.5%.
The Lakers, meanwhile, aren’t a great three-point shooting team by either frequency (31.4%, 27th) or accuracy (35.4%, 23rd). With that said, they live around the rim by attempting 37.2% of their shots within four feet of the basket (4th highest rate) and are making them at an elite clip as well (70.1% field goal percentage, 3rd).
It’ll be interesting to see if Indiana decides to tweak their entire defensive scheme for this one game. If they don’t, the Lakers might actually be able to keep up with them offensively.
In the third quarter of the Pacers' win against the Bucks, Milwaukee played a zone that seemed to flummox Indiana on a few possessions. Specifically, the Bucks were able to get the ball out of Haliburton’s hands at times and force the Pacers to second-guess their decisions.
According to Synergy, though, Indiana still averaged 1.23 points per possession on 13 zone possessions against the Bucks. That’s a surprisingly high number but it doesn’t tell the entire story: Milwaukee went on an 11-0 run at one point while playing zone because it let them set up their offense easier. Even so, the main reason why Indiana was still successful against the Bucks’ zone is because Brook Lopez continued playing drop coverage, allowing Haliburton and company to hit open floaters like the one below.
Naturally, this begs the question as to whether or not the Lakers will try playing zone too. So far this season, LA has deployed the scheme on 67 possessions and conceded a total of 73 points. That averages to 1.09 points allowed per possession — a very good figure. More importantly, they’ve only allowed 1.00 points while playing zone against pick & rolls, which is Indiana’s bread and butter.
Given that Anthony Davis is more mobile and better suited to guarding perimeter players, the Lakers also don’t need to keep him in a drop, which could make life more difficult for Indiana. Just take a look at the play below: even though AD bit on Franz Wagner’s pump fake, he still prevented a potential drive by playing at the level of the ball and had a decent recovery to semi-contest Wagner’s shot.
Given AD’s defensive flexibility and Milwaukee’s moderate success, I’d be surprised if the Lakers don’t at least try playing zone to see how successful it might be against Indiana.
Among players who have run at least 100 picks and rolls this season, Haliburton’s 1.28 PPP ranks first by a long shot — second-place De-Aaron Fox averages “only” 1.22 PPP. More impressive is the volume of P&Rs that Haliburton runs, as 43.9% of his possessions come from that play type.
On the other hand, AD is unsurprisingly elite in defending P&Rs. Among players who have defended 100 pick-and-roll ball handlers, the 0.865 PPP opposing teams average against his coverage ranks 19th league-wide. More impressive is the fact that opponents are only shooting 59.6% at the rim when guarded by AD, which is 6% lower than the league average. Haliburton himself is a very good finisher, who, in the Bucks game, made a ton of tough layups against a very good rim protector in Brook Lopez, but he’ll definitely have a tougher time scoring on AD both in the mid-range and around the basket.
The good news for Indiana, though, is that the success of Haliburton’s P&Rs comes mostly from his playmaking. Zach Lowe said on his recent podcast that the Pacers guard only shoots out of P&Rs 39% of the time, so even if AD is doing a good job of containing him, the Lakers still need to prevent other Pacers from finishing easy buckets that Haliburton sets up for them.
Who will guard LeBron?
In their game against the Bucks, Indiana assigned Aaron Nesmith to be the primary guard on Giannis, and many expect him to start on LeBron too. There’s been some discourse saying that he did a good job on the Greek Freak, but neither the eye test nor the stats back that up.
In five possessions, Giannis scored on Nesmith four times, and without much trouble, either. The only shot that Giannis missed was a turnaround fade (which LeBron converts at a much higher rate), and the four baskets he scored all came around the basket like the one below.
Even though LeBron is not the physical freak that Giannis currently is, he is still three inches taller and 35 pounds heavier than Nesmith while being a much craftier offensive player than the Bucks superstar. Plus, even at 39-years-old, the King was still in better shape and more athletic than a 23-year-old Zion (who’s probably taking the Vegas slogan a bit too literally right now), so it’s entirely possible that LeBron could just drive past Nesmith like Giannis did.
Simply put, I don’t think the Pacers have the personnel nor the scheme that’s needed to slow down LeBron. Even if Myles Turner is protecting the rim, opponents are only shooting slightly below the league average against him around the basket (63%), and LeBron’s currently making an absurd 77% of his shots in that area — the highest mark since his Miami days.
Even though LA has largely struggled offensively this season, I don’t think that they’ll have much trouble scoring against the Pacers given the style of play of both teams and the form that LeBron is in. Moreover, the King will be extra incentivized to be able to say that he won the first-ever IST, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he said that this has been a long-time dream of his too.
Regardless of the end result, there’s no denying that the IST has been a big success in its inaugural season, and it should only get better after tweaks are made moving forward.
Prediction: Lakers win 127-115.