Pacers vs Pistons in In-Season Tournament
Nov. 24, 2023 - The Pacers take on the Detroit Pistons at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in an In-Season Tournament game on the special court designed specifically for the NBA's new event.

Pacers Relishing In-Season Tournament Experience

When the NBA announced plans for a new In-Season Tournament to debut during the 2023-24 season, there were plenty of questions surrounding the new event, from the potential format to the prize pool to how it would impact the regular season.

But the biggest question was if teams and fans would buy into the concept.

The answer in Indiana has been a resounding yes.

The Pacers expressed excitement about the opportunity to take part in the inaugural event, then made the most of that opportunity by winning all four Group Play games to advance to the Knockout Rounds. They made history as the first team to win an In-Season Tournament game, as well as the first to clinch a berth in the Knockout Rounds. They will also host the first Knockout Round game on Monday, when they welcome the Boston Celtics to Gainbridge Fieldhouse for an East Quarterfinal game.

For a young Indiana team short on playoff experience, the In-Season Tournament was a welcome opportunity to simulate a playoff environment in the early weeks of a season that they hope ends with the Pacers' first postseason berth since 2019-20.

Star point guard Tyrese Haliburton was an All-Star last season at age 22, but he hasn't made the playoffs so far in his career. The same holds true for other young players on the roster like Bennedict Mathurin, Andrew Nembhard, and Isaiah Jackson.

Other young players like Aaron Nesmith, Jalen Smith, and Obi Toppin were part of playoff teams in previous stops, but either barely saw the floor or played a limited role for those teams. They are now all key rotation pieces for the Blue & Gold.

Buddy Hield has been in the NBA for seven seasons, but has not yet made the playoffs. He entered the year with the dubious distinction of having played the sixth-most games without reaching the playoffs of any player in NBA history, a note he is hoping to erase from his resume this season.

Even other veterans like Myles Turner and T.J. McConnell have playoff experience, but haven't been to the postseason since the Pacers' last trip in 2020. And those playoff games took place in the NBA bubble in Orlando, so Gainbridge Fieldhouse hasn't hosted a playoff game since April 2019.

With all that in mind, the Pacers entered In-Season Tournament play with a purpose. They wanted to make the most of the chance to "play for something real," as Haliburton put it.

"I've never played in a playoff game so I take this very serious," Haliburton said. "Because it's my first time really competing for a championship, having a chance to in something."

For the first edition of the In-Season Tournament, the league divided each conference into three five-team groups based on last season standings. For Group Play, each team played four total games during the month of November against the other teams in its group (two home games and two road games). The three group winners and one Wild Card (the second-place team with the best record) from each conference advanced to the single-elimination Knockout Rounds.

The higher seeds (including the Pacers) will host Quarterfinals at their home arenas on Dec. 4 and 5, with the Semifinals and Championship game held on a neutral floor in Las Vegas on Dec. 7 and 9, respectively.

The league took a number of steps to make the In-Season Tournament as exciting and interesting as possible for both teams and fans. They unveiled a new trophy (the NBA Cup) for the winning team and rolled out a prize pool for both players and coaches that pays out a bonus for each team that reaches the Knockout Rounds and increases in size based on how far a team advances, with every player on the team that wins the title taking home $500,000.

The NBA designated all Tuesdays and Fridays in November as In-Season Tournament days, with all the Group Play games taking place on those days of the week. But they also took an extra step to make the games visually distinctive, having every home team wear their City Edition uniforms and play on a court that features their City Edition colors.

For the Pacers, that meant a bright blue court with a gold runway across the middle of it. In Philadelphia, the Pacers played on a red court against the 76ers.

The bright-colored courts were a stark departure for traditional fans, but drew plenty of attention, especially from younger audiences.

"I think it's fire," Haliburton said after playing on the blue court at Gainbridge Fieldhouse for the first time on Nov. 3. "I love the color. I feel like I'm in 2K out there."

Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle had never seen anything quite like it over his decades in the NBA as both a player and a coach.

"It’s creative for sure," Carlisle said. "I think the thought with the IST is to make it different, make it very much a thing that you know when that thing is happening…I think it’s pretty cool...The courts are making a statement that this is something special happening."

The courts certainly made a statement and so did the Pacers when the actual games began.

They had the distinction of hosting the first In-Season Tournament game to tip off on Nov. 3 against Cleveland. Turner scored the first points ever in the event, a two-hand slam off a dish from Haliburton in a pick-and-roll, and the Pacers ultimately came away with a hard-fought 121-116 win over the Cavs, with Turner scoring a team-high 27 points.

The Blue & Gold's toughest test on paper was their next game — at Philadelphia on Nov. 14. But once again they were up to the task, as Haliburton tallied 33 points and 15 assists (with no turnovers) and Toppin added 27 points in a 132-126 win.

That set Indiana up with a chance to clinch their group with a victory in Atlanta a week later. What unfolded was one of the most exciting offensive showcases in recent NBA history. Haliburton was spectacular, recording 37 points and 16 assists, while Hield went 6-for-6 from 3-point range and hit the game-winning three in the final minute in a 157-152 shootout.

They closed out Group Play in style back at home on Nov. 24, outscoring Detroit 32-9 over the final nine minutes in a 136-113 win. Seven Pacers reached double figures in the victory, with Haliburton and Turner both collecting double-doubles.

There was an added intensity to each and every contest, with the outcome of every game in doubt entering the fourth quarter in all four games and coming down to the final minute in the first three.

"It's obviously not the playoffs, but they're playoff feel, playoff-like games," Turner said. "Us getting this experience early, being such a young group, is so important...Being battle-tested early so you're ready for that type of physicality and that type of style of play near the end of the year. It's big time."

"It's a great deal for us, great deal for the fans, great deal for the NBA," Hield added. "Watching these games, these games are high intensity. They're like playoff-type games. They're coming down to the last plays...It's been fun to watch."

Though the Pacers knew already knew they were hosting a Quarterfinal, they were all tuned into the NBA action on Tuesday, the final day of Group Play competition. Depending on the results of the five Eastern Conference games that evening, they could have ended up playing any one of seven different teams. Hield was glued to his phone that night trying to keep up with all the possible permutations.

"I'm calling coaches, I'm calling (analytics staffers) saying, 'Yo if this team wins or this team loses by this amount, who do we play?'" he said. "I'm trying to be locked in. It's kind of cool. I think that it's exciting to be following it."

The fans in Indiana and across the country appear to have bought in as well. The NBA had its highest average attendance on record for the month of November, set new records for social media consumption in November, and saw viewership increase by 20 percent year over year for local broadcasts, 25 percent for NBA League Pass, and 26 percent for national broadcasts.

The Pacers' reward for going 4-0 in Group Play? Hosting a game with real stakes in early December. And one more chance to play on that bright blue floor.

"This team, it's been a while since they've made it far in the playoffs or got to the Finals," Toppin said. "So having the opportunity to have that type of feel of the playoffs, Finals type of atmosphere, it's fun for us, but it's fun for the fans, too."

Turner agreed, noting he was eager to once again be playing games with real stakes at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.

"Playing in front of the best fans in the world...This is exactly what we needed," Turner told Bally Sports Indiana's Jeremiah Johnson after the Pacers secured homecourt advantage for the Quarterfinals. "It's good for the city, it's good for Indy and good for our team as well.

"Love the floor, too."