Pacers’ Tyrese Haliburton puts away Rockets as he gets ‘much closer’ to full strength

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INDIANAPOLIS — The stage was set for the final act, and after nearly three weeks of watching his teammates close without him, Indiana Pacers star Tyrese Haliburton was once again a part of the show.

Clinging to a three-point lead with 31.3 seconds left in Tuesday’s game, Haliburton received the ball out of a timeout and proceeded to remind everyone at Gainbridge Fieldhouse, including the pesky Houston Rockets, of why he was named an All-Star Game starter. The 6-foot-5 guard caught the ball in the backcourt, dribbled to the left wing and then invited Houston forward Jeff Green to tango.

Haliburton dribbled through his legs four times, and on the last one, he gave a brief head fake as if he was about to shoot a stepback 3. Green took the bait, quickly moving forward to close the gap between him and Haliburton, and by then, it was too late. Haliburton stepped on the gas and blew past Green down the lane, where he finished a floater off the glass over Rockets rookie Amen Thompson.

Ball game.

After delivering the dagger to make it a two-possession game, Haliburton exchanged trash talk with Houston’s Dillon Brooks as the Pacers (29-23) held on for a 132-129 victory. This wasn’t a new experience for the Pacers’ leader, whose become accustomed to calling his own number in the game’s biggest moments, but it was a feeling he missed. Tuesday marked the first game Haliburton played in all four quarters, including winning time, since he re-aggravated a left hamstring strain in a loss at Portland on Jan. 19.

“I think that was the frustrating part about the minutes restriction when I came back,” Haliburton said. “ … It’s exciting now to be able to start games, finish games and play close to my traditional minutes. I’m just happy to be more healthy.”

Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said Haliburton still isn’t 100 percent back to his pre-injury form, though “he’s getting much closer.” Haliburton played 29 minutes against the Rockets, his most in a game since the aforementioned Trail Blazers matchup. He tallied 18 points on 8-of-15 shooting — highlighted by his clutch bucket that gave Indiana a five-point lead with 21 seconds left — and seven assists. But for as lethal as Haliburton was late with nine fourth-quarter points, he wouldn’t have been in a position to shut the door without big contributions from the Pacers’ reserves.

After a lackluster first half in which Houston exploded for 75 points on 65.2 percent shooting, the Pacers hunkered down in the third quarter and limited the Rockets to 24 points on 33.3 percent shooting. Backup guards Buddy Hield and T.J. McConnell, who scored 12 and 17 points off the bench, respectively, helped set the tone defensively as Indiana flipped a seven-point halftime deficit into a seven-point lead at the end of the third quarter. McConnell capped off the frame with a driving and-1 floater over Houston’s Aaron Holiday that elicited an approving roar from the home crowd. Haliburton, who was not in the game, couldn’t hide his excitement either as he high-fived McConnell on the sideline and flexed.

When McConnell was subbed out at the 8:44 mark of the fourth quarter, he received the loudest applause of the night and a standing ovation. The nine-year veteran has developed a reputation as one of Indiana’s spark plugs, always willing to go further than the next man to light the fuse.

“T.J. McConnell is out of his mind as a competitor. He just is extreme,” Carlisle said. “He just has a knack for making plays, firing up his teammates and firing up our crowd. When he had that run (in) the second half, our building took a seismic jump, and that made it hard on Houston. That was a big part of us being able to create some separation.”

Jalen Green paced the Rockets (23-27) with a game-high 30 points, while Alperen Şengün turned in 20 points and 10 rebounds to put Houston in the driver’s seat for most of the game.

The Rockets also dominated the glass, outrebounding the Pacers 48-25 and grabbing 20 offensive boards that led to 22 second-chance points. However, Indiana was able to withstand that onslaught, in part, by winning the 3-point matchup. The Pacers outscored the Rockets by nine points from behind the arc, and that edge was spearheaded by Pascal Siakam, who scored 29 points on 11-of-16 shooting. The two-time All-Star drained four 3s, his most in 11 games with Indiana, including one off a running cross-court assist from Haliburton in the first quarter.

After the game, Haliburton made it a point to pick the brain of Houston point guard Fred VanVleet, who did not play due to an adductor strain. VanVleet and Siakam were teammates for seven seasons in Toronto and helped win the franchise’s lone NBA title in 2019. Haliburton has never even been to the playoffs, and to get there later this season, he knows Siakam’s comfortability as a tandem will be vital.

“His knowledge of the game, wanting to win, wanting to get better, that’s all you can really ask for from a young player coming in (from a trade),” Siakam said while commending Haliburton for seeking VanVleet’s advice. “Those are the special ones, the ones that want to learn, the ones that want to get better. … The more we can get out there on the floor together, I think it’s naturally just a fit.”

(Photo of Tyrese Haliburton: Trevor Ruszkowski / USA Today)

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