LAS VEGAS — Tyrese Haliburton can change his own narrative Saturday night, while LeBron James gets a chance to add yet another prize to his legacy.
It's a game that doesn't count in the NBA regular-season standings — but it has a ton of money, a trophy, medals and bragging rights on the line. Haliburton and the Indiana Pacers will take on James and the Los Angeles Lakers in the championship game of the league's inaugural in-season tournament.
Both teams are 6-0 in the event.
The new tourney was something NBA commissioner Adam Silver wanted for years, likening it to what's commonly done in top soccer leagues around the globe. James said the other major ideas on Silver's watch — the bubble environment at Walt Disney World that finished the 2019-20 season in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic on the way to the Lakers winning the title, and the play-in tournament that sprang from that — both worked, and he has called the commissioner "a genius" for pulling this venture off, too.
"We've got to finish our breakfast on Saturday. That's the most important thing," James said. "But like I said, yeah, he's pretty good. I said Adam is a genius. He does a great job, for sure."
ABC will televise the 8:40 p.m. matchup.
James has won four NBA titles and been to the NBA Finals 10 times. He is the league's all-time leading scorer and has a slew of accolades. Haliburton is essentially just starting out: He was an NBA All-Star last year, got a rookie max extension from the Pacers last summer that will be worth at least $205 million and has emerged as perhaps this season's breakout star.
But after a road loss to the Miami Heat last week, Haliburton said this to a handful of reporters at his locker: "Individual success is nothing at this point. I just want to win. I'm tired of being a loser. I've got to do a better job of finding ways to win. I've got to be better for us to win games. That's just plain and simple."
He had 27 points, 15 assists, seven rebounds and no turnovers in Indiana's semifinal win over the Milwaukee Bucks in Las Vegas on Thursday. And while it's not an NBA title, Haliburton has a chance to win something big Saturday night.
"He's a great player," said Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo, the two-time league MVP who was also MVP of the 2021 NBA Finals. "But to be able to have 25 points-plus, 15 assists and not turning the ball over, which I had no idea about it, speaks a lot. Speaks volumes about the way he's playing this year."
Players from both teams have clinched $200,000 each for making the final; players with two-way contracts get half that much. Players on the winning team get $500,000 apiece, so there's roughly $4.5 million at stake in Saturday's game. The winning team also gets the NBA Cup, and all players from the championship team get medals.
After his team's 133-89 rout of the New Orleans Pelicans in the semifinal round, Lakers coach Darvin Ham said "everybody understands what we're playing for, and what a great opportunity to be in here in this city and in this tournament for us to reveal our competitive spirit top to bottom."
The Pacers are 12-8 overall this season with the Lakers 14-9, but this game won't count in the standings because it will essentially be the 83rd in an 82-game season for both teams.
The tournament caused a couple of schedule quirks from the usual 41-home, 41-road game model.
The Bucks, Lakers and Pacers will all play 41 home and 40 road games this season, with one neutral-site contest (two, technically, for the Lakers and Pacers, though the Saturday game won't be in the standings). At the end, the Pelicans will have played 40 at home, 41 on the road and one at a neutral site.
The New York Knicks will play 40 home games and 42 road games. The Knicks lost a quarterfinal in Milwaukee and got a road game against the Boston Celtics on Friday to fill out their regular-season schedule.
In the NBA's official stats, the Bucks and Lakers have 42 home and 40 road games (the Lakers were the designated home team against the Pelicans in Las Vegas), the Pacers have 41 of each (they were considered the road team against Milwaukee in the other semifinal), and the Knicks and Pelicans are both listed with 40 at home and 42 on the road.
Saturday will mark the first meeting of the season between the Lakers and Pacers, who will face off again March 24 in Los Angeles and March 29 in Indianapolis.
Those games could be important in the race for playoff spots or the battle postseason positioning, and there's always a chance this could be a preview of the NBA Finals. While winning in December is good, celebrating next summer would be great.
"We have a dream as an organization to be an NBA championship organization," said third-year Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said, who spent part of his playing career with Indiana. "They won three ABA titles, and that's a big deal. Winning an NBA title is a dream that's reachable, but it's got to be a dream where people can focus on how it's reachable, and we're showing signs of that.
"We're not there yet. We're showing signs, and we're a dangerous team."