Breaking down the NBA Cup championship: Indiana Pacers or Los Angeles Lakers?

Saturday’s final of the NBA’s inaugural in-season tournament features a matchup of two teams — and star players — at different ends of the aging spectrum.

For the Indiana Pacers and 23-year-old All-Star point guard Tyrese Haliburton, who had thrived in relative obscurity, this run has been a national introduction. Meanwhile, 38-year-old LeBron James has provided another reminder of how dangerous he still is in big-game settings.

Although some might dispute that big game label, James has taken this tournament seriously from the start, imbuing the idea with credibility. He played with a Game 7 level of effort and focus during Thursday’s semifinal win at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, drawing three charges in a game for just the second time in the last decade according to Second Spectrum tracking via ESPN Stats & Information.

A win Saturday in the NBA Cup championship (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN2/ESPN app) will either add more hardware to the Lakers’ 17 championships, including one in 2020 during the James-Anthony Davis era, or provide a first NBA crown for a Pacers franchise that won three titles in their ABA days but came up short in their only NBA Finals appearance in 2000 against — who else? — the Lakers.

Let’s break down what we’ve learned about both teams during their in-season tournament runs and what it says about their chances of hoisting the NBA Cup on Saturday.

At best in tournament

For two teams sitting above the play-in games in their respective conference standings (Indiana at 12-8, tied with the New York Knicks, and the Lakers at 14-9), both the Pacers and Lakers have performed far better during in-season tournament play than the rest of their schedule.

Thursday’s 44-point domination of the New Orleans Pelicans was the Lakers’ third win by at least 27 points in six in-season tournament games — more than any other team has across all games this season. (The Lakers only have one win by more than 10 points outside the in-season tournament.)

Indiana’s in-season tournament run hasn’t been as dominant. The Pacers’ six wins have come by a combined 59 points, but that’s still impressive when considering the caliber of opposition Indiana has navigated along the way. The Pacers beat the four teams with the best odds to win the Eastern Conference, taking down the Cleveland Cavaliers and Philadelphia 76ers as part of a challenging East Group A before eliminating the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks this week.

Adjusted for the season-long performance of their opponents and the location of the games, the Lakers have performed 15.5 points per game better than an average team in their in-season tournament wins, with Indiana ranking second in this metric at 11.9 points per game better than average. In all other games, both the Pacers (minus-1.3) and Lakers (minus-3.9, good for 24th in the league) have performed worse than average.

A lot of the difference, naturally in a single-elimination tournament, comes down to hot shooting. The Lakers have hit a league-leading 45% from 3-point range during their in-season tournament run — remarkable considering they’ve shot an NBA-worst 30% in all other games and haven’t hit better than 38% from beyond the arc at any time outside the tournament. Indiana, which ranks sixth in 3-point percentage overall, doesn’t have as dramatic of a split but has shot better during the in-season tournament (41%) than other games (37%).

Perhaps more importantly for the Pacers, they’ve seen opponents hit 35% from 3-point range during the in-season tournament. In all other games, Indiana’s opponents have scorched the net at a 41% clip from 3, the league’s highest mark.

Can the Lakers slow down the Pacers?

The knockout stages of the in-season tournament haven’t lived up to the conventional wisdom that the game slows down in the playoffs so far. Despite relatively low point totals by Indiana standards this season, the Pacers’ two wins this week have featured 104 possessions per 48 minutes according to NBA Advanced Stats, right on Indiana’s league-leading average of 104.1 this season.

Thanks in part to their hot 3-point shooting, the Pacers’ offensive attack — already the most efficient in NBA history on a per-possession basis — has been even better during the in-season tournament. They’re scoring 127.4 points per 100 possessions in the tournament, up from a record-setting 123.5 in regular season games.

Naturally, that starts with Haliburton, who’s delivered back-to-back dazzling performances this week to lead Indiana to the championship. Haliburton combined for 53 points on 21-of-37 shooting and 28 assists without committing a single turnover in the two knockout games.

The Lakers did have some success disrupting Haliburton in the pick-and-roll last season, however. His .94 points per chance in two games against the Lakers last season was Haliburton’s sixth-lowest average against any team, according to Second Spectrum tracking, and third-lowest among teams he played multiple times.

In Davis, the Lakers have a big man more capable of affecting Haliburton at the point of attack than the Bucks, who primarily used a drop coverage with their center Brook Lopez in Thursday’s semifinal. Haliburton picked that apart to the tune of 1.3 points per chance according to Second Spectrum.

Haliburton and the Pacers will also test the Lakers’ transition defense, which has been solid overall but struggled at times lately. Cleaning the Glass ranks the Lakers 11th-best in preventing opponents from adding points in transition based on the combination of their frequency and efficiency. The Lakers have given up 20-plus fast-break points in three of their last four games though, including their quarterfinal win over the Phoenix Suns. They can’t afford to give Indiana — the fourth-best team in adding points in transition per Cleaning the Glass — those opportunities.

Will “Tournament LeBron” carry the Lakers?

We’ve seen “Playoff LeBron” for years, and he led all active NBA players in terms of outperforming his regular-season value in the playoffs when I studied the topic in 2019. Now we’ve got “Tournament LeBron,” which admittedly doesn’t have the same ring but is proving meaningful nonetheless.

At this stage of his career, James is unlikely to make a run at a fifth regular-season MVP, but the in-season tournament MVP is likely his if the Lakers win on Saturday. Only Haliburton has rated as more valuable in tournament games by my wins above replacement player (WARP) metric. Since WARP is a cumulative value stat, James actually hurt his cause to a small degree by playing a little too well in just 22:32 of playing time on Thursday.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, that was the lowest minutes total for any player with at least 30 points, five rebounds and five assists (James had eight) since minutes were first tracked in box scores starting during the 1951-52 season. LeBron’s willingness to take a pair of charges on Zion Williamson — as many as Williamson had committed all season entering the game — set the tone for his teammates. Hot shooting didn’t hurt either.

The Lakers trailed 30-29 after one quarter when James hit a 3 early in the second quarter. He answered a Jose Alvarado triple with another of his own, then pulled up on a heat check from a listed 30 feet to complete a personal 9-3 run. The Lakers never lost the lead again. They ended up outscoring the Pelicans by 36 points with James on the court, tied for his third-best single-game plus-minus on record according to ESPN Stats & Info.

If James is the best player in Saturday’s final, that favors the Lakers, who go deeper in terms of impact contributors than the Pacers. In particular, a Lakers bench fortified by Austin Reaves — who’s hit six 3-pointers and scored 37 points in a pair of wins this week — and the return of Jarred Vanderbilt from injury figures to match up better against Indiana’s second unit than Milwaukee did.

The other wild card in the final is how far Darvin Ham is willing to go with his star players in order to win. LeBron’s light load on Thursday and the two days off the Lakers have after Saturday both suggest Ham could approach this closer to a Game 7 in terms of workload if he wants. Given the Lakers’ massive differential in net rating with James on the court, playing him in excess of 40 minutes could tilt things in their favor.

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