Tyrese Haliburton had a milestone night on Monday, and not just in the ways that you're thinking of. His 26-point, 13-assist, 10-rebound stat line did give him the first triple-double of his career, and after spending the first three seasons of his career on lottery teams, Monday's In-Season Tournament quarterfinal was the closest he's ever come to winning a playoff game. The most surprising and notable first for Haliburton, though, related to where the game aired. For the first time in his career, Haliburton played in a game that was nationally shown on TNT.
It's initially a jarring stat that makes quite a bit more sense with a bit of thought. Haliburton has spent his career playing on bad teams in small markets. Bad teams in small markets rarely play on national television. It's no secret that the NBA has struggled to promote younger stars out of the enormous shadow cast by veteran stalwarts like LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, so when a star begins to emerge on a bad team in a small market, there isn't much he can do in the regular season to attract fans outside of the League Pass crowd.
The playoffs exist, of course, and are typically the league's primary narrative driver. But how often does any young player really get to take advantage of that stage? Think of our last several MVPs. Nikola Jokic won one playoff series in his first four seasons. Giannis Antetokounmpo didn't win a series at all until his sixth season, and Joel Embiid still hasn't reached the conference finals. Even when a young star makes the playoffs, he's usually in for a few years as cannon fodder for the older, championship-ready teams.
Put it all together and the league just hasn't had a real mechanism to promote ascending stars while they're still ascending. They aren't truly introduced to the broader sports audience until they're already in their primes and competing for titles, and without those formative years, those more casual fans are less invested in their stories and successes.
It's a dangerous, self-sustaining cycle. The majority of fans are largely invested in a small group of older players, so the league has to promote those players, which, in turn, takes opportunities away from younger ones. The sport has desperately needed a way to share stars like Haliburton with the world. And this is where the In-Season Tournament comes in.
If Haliburton wasn't going to get on national television the old fashioned way, he needed a way to earn his way there through merit. He did just that by leading the Indiana Pacers to a 4-0 record in group play, setting up a big-time matchup with the Eastern Conference favorite Boston Celtics. By winning that game, Haliburton took the Pacers to Vegas, where he will likely be the biggest story at the biggest event of the regular season.
The NBA's most devoted fans have known how special Haliburton is for years, but it's not unreasonable to assume a significant number of viewers were watching him for the first time. And an even bigger number will do so when the tournament shifts to Vegas on Thursday. The league effectively gave its players an opportunity to create their own regular-season showcase, and Haliburton was the one that grabbed it.
One of the questions that surrounded this tournament's inception was why the fans would care about it more than typical regular-season games. The answer proved to be surprisingly simple: the tournament generated its own narrative momentum. Watching Tyrese Haliburton play basketball is riveting, and with each passing game, more and more new fans have the access to do it for the first time.
That was, in essence, the point of this whole enterprise. The NBA was looking for a way to add meaning to games that, for a variety of reasons, had started to feel meaningless. The players themselves gave it meaning. Less than a week ago, Haliburton said that he was "tired of begin a loser." The In-Season Tournament gave him a chance to be a winner before he otherwise would have been able to prove it. Now that he's done so, you can bet he's going to be on TNT quite a bit more often, and, hopefully, plenty of other young stars will earn that same chance moving forward.