The NBA couldn't have asked for a better matchup for the In-Season Tournament final than the Los Angeles Lakers and Indiana Pacers. The storylines are endless. The NBA's most glamorous team playing against a small-market up-and-comer. The NBA's oldest superstar in LeBron James playing against its newest one in Tyrese Haliburton. A 2000 Finals rematch. Indiana revisiting years of LeBron-induced playoff nightmares. Trade rumors that spanned most of last season. Even Bennedict Mathurin's infamous quote that James would "have to show me he's better than me" for him to believe it during his rookie season. Narratively speaking, this is a perfect matchup.
Of course, narratives only get you so far. The stories won't matter if the game is bad, and that is what makes this such a perfect final for the In-Season Tournament. The Lakers and Pacers never play bad games. Basically every battle they've fought in recent years has been memorable for some reason or another. Since James joined the Lakers in 2018, the Lakers and Pacers have played 10 times. Nine of those games were decided by single digits. The 10th was a particularly enjoyable blowout. So before we watch the Lakers and Pacers face off for the NBA Cup, let's go back and revisit the last half-decade of Lakers vs. Pacers, one of the NBA's more randomly entertaining rivalries.
2018-19: LeBron's remodel
Things were looking up for the Lakers when they met the Pacers on Nov. 29, 2018. They entered the game at 11-9. James was beginning to figure out how to play with his new, young teammates, and he dropped 38 points, nine rebounds and seven assists in a 104-96 victory. In the grand scheme of things it wasn't especially eventful, but it did give us a baseline against which we could judge the far more exciting Feb. 5 game. Of course, exciting is subjective here because the Pacers won that game by 42 points.
The game remains memorable in part due to timing. It was the last game the 2018-19 Lakers played before the trade deadline, and Indiana's fans wouldn't let them forget it. They chanted "LeBron's gonna trade you" at several younger Lakers as the blowout progressed, including Brandon Ingram.
In fairness to Indiana's fans... LeBron did trade Ingram. He wanted a partnership with Anthony Davis and he got one. Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart were the casualties of that alliance. That duo won the Lakers a championship, but it never quite undid the embarrassment of those chants. Or some of the losses that followed.
Here's a fun little fact about the 2019-20 NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers: if you include the playoffs, they beat every team in the league at least once... except for those pesky Pacers. The first defeat came on Dec. 17, when nobody was beating the Lakers. Los Angeles entered that contest on a 24-2 rampage through the league, and even without Anthony Davis (a theme that will persist!), they were still favored in this game.
It came down to the wire, with frequent lead changes and ties throughout the second half. James tied the game at the line with 100 seconds remaining. Malcolm Brogdon put the Pacers back in front with a floater, and then Domantas Sabonis extended the lead to three at the foul line. Rajon Rondo shot for the tie at the buzzer, but couldn't connect. Pacers 105, Lakers 102. The eventual champions finally looked mortal.
They looked far worse when they faced the Pacers at Disney World eight months later. In the game that launched 1,000 jersey swaps, T.J. Warren roasted the Lakers for 39 points to lead the Pacers to a 116-111 victory. The defeat put Lakers fans into panic mode. At that point, they were 2-4 in the bubble and Warren had just outplayed both Laker stars that shared his position. They ultimately pulled it together, but they never did get that elusive win over the 2019-20 Pacers. They'd make up for it a year later.
2020-21: The lull
If you're looking for a year to skip, this would be the one. Still, both games were close. The Lakers eked out a five-point win in March without Davis behind 24 Kyle Kuzma points, but the more important of the two games came in May. James, dealing with a high-ankle sprain that had kept him out of the lineup in 26 of the previous 28 Laker games, made his grand return in the regular-season's penultimate game against Indiana.
The results looked good on paper. James scored 24 points on 50% shooting. The Lakers won by seven. All appeared well. And then the playoffs arrived, and it turned out that beating Goga Bitadze and Oshae Brissett wasn't an especially meaningful barometer for an eventual matchup with the future Western Conference champion Phoenix Suns. Davis got hurt. James wasn't himself. The Lakers got knocked out in the first round.
2021-22: Dialing up the excitement
The Lakers had the No. 22 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, and had they not used it to trade for Russell Westbrook, they hoped to draft an Oregon guard named Chris Duarte. They wouldn't have been able to do so even if they'd kept the pick, though, because Duarte went to the Pacers at No. 13. In one game on Nov. 24, he justified that decision with a single shot. Trailing 112-109 with under six seconds remaining, Duarte's game-tying prayer was answered and the Pacers took the Lakers to overtime.
The extra period did the Pacers little good. The Lakers pulled ahead and won, 124-116, but that Duarte shot remains memorable to Laker fans to this day because of what would follow. Let's just say it wasn't the only memorable end-of-game 3-pointer we're going to cover in this space.
In basketball terms, Indiana's 111-104 Jan. 19 victory was forgettable. And yet you could argue that it was the moment that the Lakers' once-promising season finally unraveled. They entered the matchup, once again without Davis, with a .500 record at 22-22. Trailing 101-94 with 3:52 remaining, Lakers coach Frank Vogel made the controversial decision to pull Russell Westbrook off of the floor and close with more shooting. The locker room never recovered. The Lakers finished the season 11-27. Late-game benchings became a more frequent occurrence for Westbrook. That Indiana game was, in many ways, the beginning of the end of his time with the Lakers. The Pacers would later nearly become the actual end of his time with the Lakers.
2022-23: Complete and utter madness
The Lakers spent the entire 2022 offseason trying and failing to trade Westbrook. They are only known to have come close once. The deal, as you likely guessed or remembered, was with the Pacers. Westbrook would have gone to Indiana along with first-round picks in 2027 and 2029 in exchange for Myles Turner and Buddy Hield. Negotiations were so public that Turner more or less to become a Laker.
But by Nov. 28, no deal had materialized. The Lakers had gone 5-2 since starting 2-10 and were seemingly on their way toward righting the ship. A win over Indiana, and more importantly, Hield and Turner, would have been symbolic, a bit of proof that they could survive without making a blockbuster trade. The 17-point lead they held with roughly 10 minutes remaining supported that theory. And then... well...
The Pacers won the final 10 minutes by a margin of 32-14. The game that was supposed to be symbolic for the Lakers ultimately proved to have that effect on the Pacers. Suddenly, the trade rumors stopped. Indiana had a winning team it had no interest in breaking up for extra draft picks. Turner extended later in the season. And this wasn't even the craziest game the Lakers and Pacers played last season.
This time, it was the Lakers that needed the big comeback. After trailing by as many as 15 points, they took the lead back, 112-111, with around 35 seconds to play on an Anthony Davis jumper with 35 seconds remaining. Davis turned around and made the biggest defensive play of the night when he switched onto Tyrese Haliburton and blocked him at the rim.
A one-point lead with 16 seconds remaining isn't exactly infallible, but the Lakers should firmly be in control here, right? Well, not exactly, because Patrick Beverley missed two free throws. That gave Indiana the ball back with a chance to beat the Lakers at the buzzer for the second time in a single season. This time it's Buddy Hield putting up the crazy, falling out of bounds shot.
Hield came closer than he had any right to considering the crazy angle of the shot, but it went in-and-out. The Lakers escaped with the win.
And that is where we leave this Pacers-Lakers rivalry. On Saturday, we'll pick it up with a game that history suggests should come with very high expectations. When the Lakers and Pacers face off, exciting things tend to happen.