In-Season Tournament

Tyrese Haliburton’s mesmerizing and efficient play is reminiscent of another late-blooming star: Steve Nash

Tyrese Haliburton's mesmerizing and efficient play is reminiscent of another late-blooming star: Steve Nash

LAS VEGAS — The world is being introduced to Tyrese Haliburton’s greatness, from his easy smile to his easier jumper and sure hands that always seems to keep the ball away from defenders.

He’s carried the Indiana Pacers to the doorstep of the NBA’s inaugural in-season tournament title, knocking off the established Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks by playing near-perfect games.

While it feels like he’s come out of nowhere to add himself to the crop of young talent ready to take the mantle, it feels a little like déjà vu as well, with the comparisons to Steve Nash being inevitable and fitting.

The Pacers trading Domantas Sabonis to Sacramento in a package for Haliburton and Buddy Hield has changed the direction of their franchise, illustrating the power of the point guard and the risk-taking necessary to elevate a team to greater heights.

Pacers coach Rick Carlisle downright gushed at seeing the parallels between Haliburton and Nash, both in style and in terms of leadership. They both gave their franchises an identity the teams sorely lacked.

“Guys like Tyrese are gonna be successful. He’d been successful if he stayed in Sacramento, I believe that,” Carlisle said Friday following the Pacers practice. “The comparisons to Nash, I think, are accurate. Largely because of the skill set, the vision, the scoring ability.

“But even more than that is Ty’s connectivity with people. One of the things that was always so amazing to watch with Steve was whenever he approached a teammate on the court to talk to him he’d always put his hand up and give him five [dap]. He would touch his teammates. Tyrese is very similar in that way.”

Tyrese Haliburton has stepped over his fair share of NBA superstars on his way to the in-season tournament final. (Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Nash had one of the most fascinating trajectories in league history. Even beyond his seemingly improbable two MVP’s, the fact he experienced two career rebirths and went back to the team that initially drafted him to become the best version of himself is almost unheard of.

Nash started his career in Phoenix, playing behind Jason Kidd and Kevin Johnson. The playing time was inconsistent at best his first two years until he was traded to Dallas in the lockout-shortened 1999 season.

By his fifth year, he was a full-time starter and teamed with Dirk Nowitzki and Michael Finley to become a potent offensive trio. But signing back with the Suns as a free agent in 2004 changed the NBA as he engineered the famous Seven Seconds or Less offense. They got up shots early and often, and Nash helped fully unlock a young Amar'e Stoudemire that first year.

The Suns came out of nowhere after years of middling play and became a Western Conference power for the next several years, narrowly missing out on reaching the NBA Finals.

It’s not an exact script for what the Pacers and Haliburton are doing now but there are some undeniable similarities, even as far as Pacers forward Obi Toppin finding new life after struggling to gain playing time with the Knicks.

With the Pacers, Toppin can get out on the break as often as possible. In the IST semifinal, he caught a alley-oop from half court — like a Nash-to-Stoudemire connection.

“That’s a good comparison. Facts, facts,” Toppin told Yahoo Sports. “He’s a great player, he’s always looking to help guys be great. So it definitely helps me.

“I had a great guard in college [at Dayton] and great guards in New York. But with Tyrese he’s looking to pass. Obviously he’s gonna get his but y’all see the assists he gets. He’s a great guy to play with. He wants guys to succeed.”

Of course, Haliburton was playing alongside and behind De’Aaron Fox with the Kings. He was a productive player but wasn’t close to being fully unleashed until arriving in Indiana. The trade has been discussed ad nauseam since the 2022 deadline, but both Haliburton and Fox have benefited.

Pacers center Myles Turner called Haliburton the best point guard in the East and hardly anyone batted an eye. Damian Lillard — whom Haliburton gave the “Dame Time” celebration to Thursday night — Jalen Brunson, Trae Young and Darius Garland are all in the East, and someone will wind up missing the All-Star game because of the numbers crunch.

It won’t be Haliburton, who’s making his case, like Nash in 2005, as a legitimate candidate as the league’s MVP. In a real case of “you had to be there,” Nash’s numbers didn’t pop off the page then or now. He averaged 15.5 points, a league-high 11.5 assists and began a run of six years in which he hit the 50-40-90 mark five times.

The league was way more bump and grind then than the free-flowing style you see today. The Phoenix Suns birthed Stephen Curry’s Golden State Warriors, and, in a way, Nash’s Suns grandfathered these Pacers.

“I think I’m a basketball historian, so I’ve watched enough to understand who he was,” said Haliburton, who added his earliest memories of Nash were probably when the Hall of Famer was past his MVP heights.

“I understand why people see the comparisons because we pass the ball really well. And both of our teams play at a very, very fast pace.”

Haliburton’s numbers jump off the page because of the pace and the fact so many teams are seduced into playing his style. It’s lots of possessions and seemingly thousands of points. His production has jumped from 20.7 points and 10.4 assists last year to 26.9 points and a league-leading 12.1 assists. Even his win shares per 48 minutes reflect his value, only trailing advanced stats king Nikola Jokić and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

“I think the game has changed a ton,” Haliburton said. “I think he does some things that I couldn’t do. I do some things [Nash] probably couldn’t do. I appreciate the comparisons, especially an all-time great and an MVP.”

Like Carlisle said, Haliburton connects with his teammates, even when they’re not playing. Turner was out with an injury when Haliburton arrived, but the two developed an instant chemistry. Watching his backups get easy 20-10 nights made Turner excited about the possibilities — and they’ve come to fruition.

“He wants to pass more than he wants to score. He knows how to get a shot off, he knows how to get to certain spots,” Turner said. “He wants to get his teammates the ball and what-not. It was an easy transition, a seamless fit."

Haliburton has helped topple a couple of present greats and MVP’s, and the only one left standing in his way is the game’s most decorated player: LeBron James.

“Like the final boss [in a video game],” Haliburton joked. “The Philly game, we weren't supposed to win. Boston, we definitely weren't supposed to win. Milwaukee, we definitely weren't supposed to win. So that's just been part of the the storybook of this and it's been a lot of fun. But it's not done yet.”

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