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The Blistering Arrival of the Indiana Pacers

But the man in the plaid shirt and the baseball cap sitting near midcourt at Madison Square Garden on Sunday had words for Tyrese Haliburton, and Tyrese Haliburton had words for the man—along with a mighty flurry of 3-pointers that would, when it was all over, spell doom for the Knicks and fuel the final kick of one of the more unlikely runs to the Eastern Conference finals.

The Pacers—pegged as a play-in team back in October—are heading to Boston to battle the top-seeded Celtics for the right to make the NBA Finals. The Knicks, spirited but depleted and ultimately diminished, are heading home to heal from various sprains, strains, and fractures. Exactly none of this was expected when the postseason began.

The Pacers were presumed to be too young to make it this far this soon, their defense too suspect, and their star point guard too shaky in critical moments of this series. And here was a Game 7 at the Garden, where the Pacers had not won in this series and Haliburton had not found his stride. But, well, cue Plaid Shirt Guy.

“He was just talking before the game,” Haliburton said later, after his Pacers had completed a blistering, record-setting 130-109 victory. “So once I got going, I just knew I was going to have to pick somebody today to get me going. And it just happened to be him.”

After the game, Haliburton wore a satisfied smile and a black sweatshirt featuring a familiar image of Pacers legend Reggie Miller with two hands to his neck, making the “choke” sign in another memorable Indiana playoff victory back in 1994, when Spike Lee was the Knicks fan doing the ill-advised taunting.

“We text every day,” Haliburton said of Miller. “He’s been a good mentor for me.”

Wherever Miller was on Sunday, he had to be beaming. Haliburton was brilliant from the tip, scoring 14 of the Pacers’ 39 points in the opening frame, the most prolific first quarter in Game 7 history. He finished with 26 points, including a Miller-esque six 3-pointers. Pascal Siakam, acquired at midseason to fill the costar’s role, had 20 points, taking full advantage of the Knicks’ battered frontcourt. Andrew Nembhard (20 points) and Aaron Nesmith (19 points), two generally modest scorers, combined to go 16-for-18 from the field. And the Pacers converted an unfathomable 67.1 percent of their shots, an NBA playoff record. Their total field goals (53) ranked as the second most in a Game 7.

“I just told our team, when you win a Game 7 at Madison Square Garden, you’ve made history,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “It’s very, very difficult to do. This is the most raucous crowd in the NBA.”

That crowd never seemed to run out of steam, belting out “Let’s go, Knicks” chants to the bitter end. Their team, however, had nothing left by the end. The Knicks were missing an All-Star forward (Julius Randle), his backup (Bojan Bogdanovic), their starting center (Mitchell Robinson), and their starting small forward, OG Anunoby, who tried to play Game 7 after missing the prior four games but lasted just five minutes. Josh Hart, the Knicks’ resident Energizer bunny, was playing through an abdominal strain. And Jalen Brunson, their MVP candidate and soon-to-be-All-NBA guard, broke his hand late in the third quarter.

The Pacers were younger, deeper, quicker, and much, much healthier. Their next challenge will look much, much different. The Celtics are making their sixth conference finals appearance since 2017, and they have two elite wings (Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown), two of the best perimeter defenders in the league (Jrue Holiday and Derrick White), and a core group that has been through just about everything. If Kristaps Porzingis returns during the series, as projected, their firepower and defense might be overwhelming for the young Pacers team, which has already far exceeded all expectations.

“We have an idea of what we’re getting into up there, with their crowd and the level of talent they have,” Carlisle said. “This is a challenge that we’ve earned, and we’re looking forward to it.”

They did indeed earn it by building one of the league’s most lethal scoring machines and by methodically crafting a defensive identity over the past few months—a critical bit of evolution that Carlisle harped on repeatedly Sunday evening, lest those efforts be obscured by his team’s shooting brilliance.

The January acquisition of Siakam from Toronto was perhaps the key moment in that evolution. The promotion of the defensive-minded Nembhard to full-time starter in late December was another. The Pacers became respectable this season because of their second-ranked offense—but they became a viable playoff team when they started to get serious about stopping their opponents.

“This team was very, very much maligned for its defense early in the year,” Carlisle said. “And they have flipped the script. I mean, they won this series with grit and guts and physical play and pressing 94 feet. And that’s how we beat Milwaukee, too. So you gotta give these guys a lot of credit for, not a total change, but a very significant change in the attitude towards defense.”

The Pacers’ path to the conference finals was also paved by injuries to their chief rivals. Their first-round victory came against a Bucks team without Giannis Antetokounmpo and, eventually, Damian Lillard. The Knicks were barely ambulatory by the time Sunday arrived. Philadelphia and Miami, both contenders when the season began, didn’t last long enough to pose an obstacle.

Not that the Pacers care about any of it, nor should they. A month ago, they marked their first playoff appearance since 2020—and the first for most of this group, period. Now the franchise is celebrating its first conference finals since 2014, when Paul George was the Pacers’ leading man and they were facing off against LeBron James’s Miami Heat.

These Pacers, with a rotation built around three 24-year olds (Haliburton, Nembhard, Nesmith), two 22-year-olds (Ben Sheppard and Isaiah Jackson), and a 26-year-old (Obi Toppin), are way ahead of schedule and eager for more.

Game 7s are supposed to be low-scoring slogs. They’re supposed to favor teams with steely defenders and extensive postseason experience. By any of the usual metrics, the Pacers shouldn’t be on their way to the Eastern Conference finals.

“Well, we’re the uninvited guests,” Carlisle said, with typical wryness. “Here we are. OK?”

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