Tyrese Haliburton scored 27 points to propel the Indiana Pacers to a 128-119 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday and into the title match of the inaugural NBA in-season tournament.
Haliburton added 15 assists, without a turnover, and Myles Turner scored 26 points and pulled down 10 rebounds as the Pacers remained unbeaten in the tournament.
Indiana, sixth in the Eastern Conference regular-season standings, had knocked out the East-leading Boston Celtics in the quarter-finals and followed up with another scintillating showing against the 2021 NBA champion Bucks led by 37 points and 10 rebounds from two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo.
In Saturday’s final in Las Vegas the Pacers take on the winner of the Western Conference semi-final between LeBron James’s Los Angeles Lakers and Zion Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans.
The tournament has been a coming-out party for Haliburton and the Pacers, who came into Thursday’s game averaging more than 128 points per game but whose NBA title hopes have been largely discounted.
“We’re not supposed to be here,” Haliburton said in an on-court post-game interview. “Expectations aren’t there. We keep shocking the world.”
In a game that featured 16 lead changes — seven of them in the fourth quarter — the Pacers got the stops they needed to hold off a Bucks team that scored 146 points in their quarter-final win over the New York Knicks.
The Bucks out-scored the Pacers 43-28 in the third quarter to take a 94-91 lead into the final period. Damian Lillard, who scored just four points in the first half, scored 20 in the second for Milwaukee.
It was nip-and-tuck early in the fourth, but Turner’s put-back layup gave the Pacers a 115-112 lead with 2:19 to play.
Haliburton pushed the lead to 119-114 with a driving layup. He drilled a step-back three-pointer that put the Pacers up 122-114 with 49.5 seconds left.
Racing back up court, Haliburton pointed to his wrist where a watch would be. After the game, Haliburton said his message was that it was the Pacers’ time.
The in-season tournament, conceived to add excitement to the early stages of the long NBA season, has proved the perfect showcase for the high-octane Pacers, who have never won an NBA title.
“We’re fun, we’re energetic,” Haliburton said. “I just want to prove that’s not a fluke. We can do this every night.”