Kravitz: Tyrese Haliburton’s feel-good story continues with All-Star validation

INDIANAPOLIS — When Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton was 5 years old, he would play the video game NBA Live 2005, the one with then-Denver Nugget Carmelo Anthony on the cover. He wasn’t entirely sure how to play the game — again, he was 5 — but he knew how to do one thing: Play in the All-Star Game mode, which included the rookie versus sophomore game, the slam dunk competition, the 3-point shooting contest and, of course, the All-Star Game itself.

Now, 17 years later, the league’s assist leader will get a chance to play in it for real Feb. 19 in Salt Lake City, joining teammates Bennedict Mathurin and Andrew Nembhard, who are in the Rising Stars game, and Buddy Hield, who is in the 3-point shooting competition. For a franchise that has largely flown under the radar in recent times, Haliburton’s rise has been one of the better stories in the NBA, his play leading the Pacers, a team that was supposed to tank, onto the cusp of the postseason.

Shortly before tipoff, Haliburton was informed by team president Kevin Pritchard and coach Rick Carlisle that he was one of the reserves who made the All-Star team. Moments later, the Pacers game ops people showed a tape of Shaquille O’Neal announcing Haliburton’s name on the TNT broadcast, and the sellout crowd, which included a lot of Lakers / LeBron fans, erupted in joy.

“It felt good, it felt good,” Haliburton said after the Pacers’ 112-111 loss to the Lakers at Gainbridge Fieldhouse Thursday. “I don’t want to sit here and sound arrogant or anything like that, but coming into the game, I thought I had a good opportunity. I thought I had a good opportunity the majority of the year, so I’m just excited that it’s official. I’ve worked really hard to get here. I never expected that I’d be able to accomplish this in three years.”

He made it because he deserved to make it. He is averaging a career high in points per game (20.2), assists (10.2) and steals (1.8), leading the league in assists per game and assist percentage (46.3 percent) and is the only player in the league averaging a points/ assists double-double. He has 23 points/assists double-doubles in 41 games this season.

Despite the loss, there was cause for celebration after Tyrese Haliburton was selected as an All-Star reserve. He has 26 points and 12 assists in his return from injury. (Trevor Ruszkowski/USA Today)

How much does Haliburton mean to this franchise? The Pacers recently lost 10 of 11 games while he sat out with a knee and elbow injury, dropping from a playoff spot to the edge of the Play-In Tournament. Indiana lost again Thursday night — Haliburton and Carlisle were not amused by the 16-0 free-throw disparity in the fourth quarter — but for three quarters, the Pacers were back to who they were prior to Haliburton’s injury — free-flowing, running, setting the pace, with their point guard playing the maestro. They led by 15 before it all fell apart in the fourth.

“Tyrese has earned it,” Carlisle said. “He’s done everything the right way. He was disappointed in the (Pacers-Kings) trade initially but then he saw the opportunity and embraced it. He’s planted his feet here, he’s committed himself to being the on-court leader of this franchise and he’s performed at an amazing level. A 20-and-10 point guard is gold in this league, particularly one that has the “it” factor when it comes to the crowd identifying with him.

“I see so much of Reggie (Miller) in him, just the way these guys move on the court, their emotions, what they’re about, how they work, so I’m really thrilled for him.”

A couple of factors led to the All-Star berth:

Again, he’s played brilliantly; without his routine of him 20-10 nights, we’re not having this conversation. Beyond earning the All-Star spot, there’s an argument to be made that he’s a top contender for Most Improved Player. Without him, the Pacers are deep into the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes.

In a twisted way, though, Wally Szczerbiak’s comments, the ones where the Knicks TV analyst called Haliburton, “Mister supposed wanna-be fake All-Star,” helped Haliburton’s candidacy. Suddenly, people started paying attention to Haliburton and this flyover franchise, and what they saw, they liked and appreciated. This guy’s got game.

Haliburton’s father, John, told me that last month.

“It made the national media really pay attention to Tyrese,” John said. “God has a way to put his person in the front without even trying. God said, ‘I did this for you and now I’m going to let the whole world see you and I’m going to do it in a way that’s going to blow your mind.’ Well, Wally ran his mouth, the world started looking at Tyrese and people started watching him play and went, ‘Wait a minute. Wait a minute. This guy can really play; Wally, you’ve got to take that back.’ So thank you very much for allowing us all to see Tyrese.”

The second factor? The Pacers fell off the map during the time Haliburton was injured. He is that valuable.

“You never want to go through a tough stretch like we have without him,” Carlisle said, “but it was further proof of how good he really is. …He just lights up our building. Our team plays a different game with him.”

Haliburton, playing his first game after the injury, picked up where he left off, finishing with 26 points and 12 assists. But he was disappointed by the way he and his team played in the fourth quarter, getting outscored 28-15 while making just 6 of 22 fourth-quarter shots. The rust didn’t show until late. After scoring 23 points with nine assists through three quarters, Haliburton was just 1 of 6 from the floor (1 of 4 from 3) in the fourth.

“This team has depended on me in the fourth all year and I was trash,” he said glumly. “Got to be better there. Just knocking some rust off and getting in rhythm. Four-for-13 from 3, that’s not me. That was expected coming back, but I’ve got to finish the game better, for sure.”

He also had a little something to say about the officiating.

“I’m not going to say anything, but what was that tweet — ‘sleepless nights’? So I don’t know, man,” he said. “I can’t control everything out there, we can’t control everything. We’ve got to be better, but man, (the Lakers) must be a really good defensive team (to commit just three personal fouls in the fourth quarter).”

Carlisle could just shake his head.

“The fourth quarter, I’m not sure what to say about that,” he said. “I’ve never seen a 16-0 free-throw discrepancy in the fourth quarter of an NBA game. … That’s something I’ve never witnessed in 38 years in this league. They got in the bonus (early) and they just put their head down and the whistle kept blowing.

“If you’re an NBA team, the best way to set up your defense is to shoot free throws. I haven’t looked at the fourth quarter yet; I’m a little afraid to, frankly. But we’ve got to execute better and get some stops without fouling, and that’s all I’ll say about the officiating. … They’ll see it in black and white tomorrow in New York — actually, they’ll see it in HD.”

Afterward, LeBron James, who scored 26 points and continued his pursuit of the NBA scoring record, praised Haliburton and recalled the first time he was named to an All-Star team.

“It’s a great feeling to be part of a select few,” he said. “Fans, peers, coaches, they respect the way you play the game. He (Haliburton) has played at a high level through two-thirds of the season, so it’s definitely a respect thing. He’s been playing good basketball all year.”

A few weeks from now, Haliburton will become the 15th Pacer to make the All-Star Game. This time, it will not be a video game; it will be the real thing.

(Top photo of Tyrese Haliburton dribbling in the second quarter as Lonnie Walker IV (4) defends: Trevor Ruszkowski / USA Today)


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