The defining moment of the NBA's inaugural In-Season Tournament came in Thursday's semifinal game between the Indiana Pacers and the Milwaukee Bucks.
The NBA must have been thrilled at the possibility of a Milwaukee Bucks-Los Angeles Lakers matchup between LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo as the type of marquee matchup that would legitimize this in-season experiment. They had helped make some new stars with the up-and-coming Indiana Pacers and New Orleans Pelicans. But this matchup would be everything.
Somebody forgot to tell the upstarts.
But in the process, the NBA seemed to make a new star and created a sort of indelible image that is important in these tournaments and exhilarating to watch as a new team enters the stage.
Tyrese Haliburton was the undoubted star of the In-Season Tournament. With time winding down and the Pacers starting to pull away in their semifinal game in Las Vegas, Haliburton got the ball after an offensive rebound and found a switch onto Brook Lopez. He proceeded to create some space on the backpedaling Lopez and hit a step-back 3-pointer to put the Bucks away.
As Tyrese Haliburton walked toward the other side of the court before a Milwaukee timeout, he pointed to his wrist as Bucks guard Damian Lillard often does after one of his many game-winners and clutch shots. It was his time now.
The new guard is asserting itself and perhaps a new picture in the Eastern Conference is beginning to emerge.
The Indiana Pacers got the stage, but the Orlando Magic are going to be part of this new wave too. They already may be with the work they have done so far this season.
The Magic and the Pacers are the upstarts in the NBA's Eastern Conference. Orlando flew out to a 14-6 start with a nine-game win streak and sit among the top teams in the East in early December -- past the quarter mark of the season and with trade season in full sight.
For the In-Season Tournament, the Magic were predicted by a few NBA players as a potential dark horse and put themselves in a very good spot to advance, leading the Boston Celtics by 22 points entering the final day of group play games. Ultimately, the Orlando Magic missed advancing by five points, ruing a 20-point loss to the Brooklyn Nets and not beating the Chicago Bulls by more than six points when they had the chance.
The Pacers made themselves must-see TV throughout their 5-1 run in the In-Season Tournament (ending in the championship game with Saturday's loss to the Lakers).
They play an entertaining style that leads the league in offensive rating with a readymade star in Tyrese Haliburton who demanded attention. Do not be surprised if the Pacers get some national TV appearances added to the slate.
The Pacers were 12-8 and sat fifth in the Eastern Conference entering Saturday's In-Season Tournament game. They are players in the playoff picture too and not some flash in the pan.
This is what the In-Season Tournament was always meant to do. Mix in some upstarts with established stars and teams. It was a chance to put an early showcase and pressure games on teams throughout the league to see who would rise.
Both the Pacers and the Magic ultimately did in the end -- even without advancing, the Magic are certainly proud of what they did. And they used big wins over stalwart powers -- both teams over the Boston Celtics and the Indiana Pacers over the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers -- to power their way through the tournament.
In other words, these teams have served notice that there will be a new guard in the NBA very soon. They have let everyone know their future is not so far off in the distance but is right now.
Haliburton is likely to be an All-Star in his hometown All-Star Weekend in Indianapolis. His In-Season Tournament run could help him clinch a starting spot.
If the Magic continue at the top of the standings through January, they will get at least one All-Star if not get both Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner in the showcase game. These are young teams starting to make waves and enter the stage of the larger NBA picture.
Of course, neither team is on national TV much at this juncture.
The Orlando Magic's only national TV game will not come until a February home date with the Oklahoma City Thunder (another upstart in the Western Conference who has established their place in the pecking order). The Pacers have only one national TV game on the schedule -- a TNT appearance in January against the Celtics.
These upstarts may well work in anonymity until they spring on the league during the Playoffs. And to be sure, both the Magic and Pacers expect to make the Playoffs. They have each proven that much both in the In-Season Tournament and beyond.
One year does not make a team a title contender of course. Both teams are trying to break through to the postseason for the first time.
They have both clearly hit on an identity they can build on as their foundation and found star players to build around.
For the Pacers, it is the top-rated offense in the league at 123.5 points per 100 possessions entering Monday's games and a dynamic playmaker and lead guard in Haliburton. For the Orlando Magic, it is the No. 2 defense in the league at 108.9 points per 100 possessions entering Monday's games (trailing another young upstart in the Minnesota Timberwolves) led by two dynamic playmaking forwards in Banchero and Wagner.
That is something for the teams to begin building around and with. Every move they made seemed to be building toward the identities they are realizing right now.
They are starting to see those strings drawn together. And they have made critical moves to build on that identity and push the teams forward.
Rebuilding always takes luck in finding the right star and shrewd moves to elevate them. There are still tough choices coming down the line. But among the young teams in the East, the Magic and Pacers have left their peers behind.
Whether they break through and break into the elite group with the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers will remain to be seen. There will undoubtedly be big moves in the East to come in the next few years -- and both the Pacers and Magic are set up to participate in said moves.
But the Magic and Pacers have elevated themselves from sleeping giants into teams on the rise. They are both now working at the same time to break through as contenders.
It presents an interesting chance to develop a new rivalry -- on the group play's last day, Haliburton said he wanted the Pacers to get a rematch with the Magic because they owed them one for a blowout Magic win in Indianapolis a few weeks prior.
But both teams used this past month to prove themselves as future contenders and perhaps something closer to that in the present. The both have made claims to the future in the league.
They just have to keep working.