NBA getting what it wants from In-Season Tournament, including LeBron James in the final

If you wanted offense in the NBA’s In-Season Tournament semifinals, Milwaukee-Indiana — two of the highest-scoring teams in the league — delivered.

Pacers 128, Bucks 119.

If you enjoy LeBron James performing at a level that no 38-year-old ever has in the NBA, then you were satisfied with the Los Angeles Lakers-New Orleans Pelicans game (because otherwise, it was a dud).

Lakers 133, Pelicans 89.

If you sought impressive individual performances, players produced.

Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo had 37 points on 13-for-19 shooting, 10 rebounds, two blocks, and Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton continued his emergence as an All-NBA guard with 27 points, 15 assists and seven rebounds — the 15th time in 18 games he has had at least 10 assists.

James had his second consecutive 30-point game and his seventh of the season, and Anthony Davis had 16 points, 15 rebounds, two blocks and two steals.

And if you craved jocularity between the ESPN and TNT pregame crews as part of a planned on-air crossover, you were rewarded, especially when Charles Barkley said to Stephen A. Smith, “This ain’t First Take. This is going to be the first ass-whooping you take if you come over here with that loud-ass talking.”

And in Saturday’s final, it’s Pacers-Lakers (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC), and the league gets one of its all-time greatest players (James) and an emerging superstar (Haliburton) in the matchup as the In-Season Tournament continues to unveil lessons old and new.

First, the two teams playing the final are both 6-0 in the IST and want to win the first NBA Cup. That’s a significant plus for the league, which had a hunch of how this would play out but didn’t know for sure. Given a chance to win something, even a shooting contest at the end of practice, competitive players want to win.

James has been all in on this, and he proved that with 30 points on 9-for-12 shooting, including 4-for-4 on 3-pointers, eight assists and five rebounds. He did all of that in 23 minutes in the first 2½ quarters. He did not play the final 18 minutes.

Going full speed into this 39th birthday on Dec. 30, James, who scored 21 points in the first half, including 18 in the second quarter, remains a marvel and wants to win the first NBA Cup and be the first MVP of the event.

(Wonder if James has considered that the success of this event will increase the value of the next TV deal, which will raise the price of a potential Las Vegas expansion team — which James would like to own if that happens.)

Now, the Lakers need to beat the Pacers if James wants to win MVP of the IST because right now Haliburton is the front-runner. In six IST games, he's averaging 27.8 points, 13.7 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 1.3 steals and shooting 51.8% from the field and 44.6% on 3s. James is right there in his six IST games at 26.8 points, 8.2 assists, 7.5 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game and 58.8% shooting from the field and 62.5% on 3-pointers.

LeBron James and the Lakers take on Tyrese Haliburton and the Pacers in the NBA In-Season Tournament final.
LeBron James and the Lakers take on Tyrese Haliburton and the Pacers in the NBA In-Season Tournament final.

We also learned Antetokounmpo, a two-time MVP, is back in the MVP discussion after Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid won last season and Denver’s Nikola Jokic in 2020-21 and 2021-22. Antetokounmpo is once again pulverizing opponents with his inside game, shooting 64.5% from the field, including 72.9% at the rim, in his past 10 games.

We also learned the Bucks are not there defensively under first-year coach Adrian Griffin, and the Pelicans aren't ready for this kind of moment.

The Pacers are proving they are a serious team in the East in a rebuild that has happened sooner than expected because of the development of Haliburton, a deep roster and the hiring of Rick Carlisle as coach in 2021. They can be a factor this season, and with the right roster moves, they can morph into a contender – if not this season then in the next couple of seasons. It’s a team players should want to join, especially with Haliburton. The front office has done solid work, but it’s not a finished product.

The NBA is getting almost everything it wants from the IST. As the league enjoys this, figuring out how to keep the momentum going season after season is its mission.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: LeBron James' Lakers set up NBA In-Season Tournament final vs. Pacers