INDIANAPOLIS – Tyrese Haliburton’s body language said more than his voice ever could. The Pacers’ star guard had just been pickpocketed by Kings forward Harrison Barnes, who turned his easy steal into an uncontested fast-break dunk in the third quarter of Friday’s game. As Barnes dribbled down the court at Gainbridge Fieldhouse, it was as if Haliburton was stuck in quicksand on the other end, unable to break loose and unable to play freely.
When Barnes flushed the ball through the rim, Pacers coach Rick Carlisle immediately called timeout. Haliburton bent over and hung his head in disgust before eventually walking back to the bench — a place that has recently offered him a lot more stress rather than relief.
“Obviously, it’s frustrating. I’m a guy who wants to play at all times,” Haliburton said after Indiana’s 133-122 loss to his former team, Sacramento. “This s— just sucks. … But I can’t go back in time and change what happened.”
Haliburton initially injured his left hamstring in a home loss against Boston on Jan. 8. Following a five-game hiatus, he returned at Portland on Jan. 19 and posted 21 points and 17 assists in another loss. Aside from the defeat, Haliburton suffered what he would later call a “setback” to his left hamstring. He missed another five games before returning, but this time there were a lot more hurdles to clear.
Some are still in his way.
Haliburton was restricted to 22 minutes in back-to-back losses at Boston and New York on Tuesday and Thursday, respectively, and didn’t play the fourth quarter in either narrow defeat. In conjunction with the Pacers’ medical and coaching staffs, Haliburton, who is still on a minutes restriction, elected to sit out the first quarter instead of the fourth quarter Friday against the Kings. He came off the bench for the first time since his rookie season and entered the game in the second quarter after riding a stationary bike in the tunnel to stay warm.
The change in approach didn’t result in a better outcome as the Pacers dropped their third straight game. Indiana trailed by as many as 18 points, while Haliburton turned in arguably his worst game of the season with 14 points on 6-of-10 shooting, three rebounds, a season-low one assist and five turnovers.
Asked if his left hamstring was pain-free after a back-to-back and the Pacers’ third game in four days, Haliburton took a long pause before providing a peak behind the curtain.
“I would say that it is what it is, honestly,” Haliburton said, choosing his words very carefully. “I think anybody who’s dealt with a hamstring before understands that it’s not just nothing. Even when you’re fully good a little bit after, you still feel it a little bit. Nothing structurally (is wrong). I think there is some pain, but I can play through that. That’s not a problem. My medical staff is amazing.”
Pacers coach Rick Carlisle has been by Haliburton’s side throughout this trying time in his promising career. Before his left hamstring injury, Haliburton was in the middle of his superstar ascension and would eventually be named the fourth All-Star Game starter in Pacers history.
He didn’t look like an All-Star on Friday, as his first pass in the second quarter was intercepted by Kings guard De’Aaron Fox and led to Malik Monk being fouled in transition. Haliburton’s five turnovers against the Kings were the third most he’s had in a game this season.
“NBA players are men, not machines,” Carlisle said. “As great as Tyrese is with ball security, there’s gonna be some nights where it’s rough. And him being in a different situation, starting the second quarter, certainly contributed to that. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.”
Carlisle said Indiana will continue to meticulously evaluate what the best plan is for Haliburton as he strives to regain his pre-injury form. Friday was another opportunity to track his overall health and progress, despite a poor outing against his old team, which didn’t have any sympathy.
The Kings, perhaps feeling a bit slighted since Fox and Domantas Sabonis were not selected as All-Stars, rode their two leaders to their fifth win in six games. Sabonis totaled 26 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists, breaking a tie with Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson with his franchise-record 30th straight double-double. Fox scored eight of his 25 points in the fourth quarter and registered a season-high six steals to stave off a Pacers comeback.
“I think we might be the only top-six team in both conferences to not have one All-Star,” Kings coach Mike Brown said in his pregame news conference. “I ain’t that good of a frickin’ coach. I ain’t got no magic dust to put on these guys. I got frickin’ players.”
Carlisle views the talent on his roster in a similar light, refusing to use his best player’s injury management as an excuse to backslide. Second-year guard Bennedict Mathurin, who returned from a two-game absence due to a right big toe sprain, was one of Indiana’s lone bright spots Friday. He responded to Haliburton’s limited playing time and Myles Turner’s absence due to a left ankle sprain by erupting for 31 points on 10-of-14 shooting. Mathurin now has five career 30-point games, with three coming this season.
Pascal Siakam added 22 points on 10-of-15 shooting. His layup made it a seven-point game with just under a minute to play, though it was too little, too late.
The Kings scored 31 points off the Pacers’ 22 turnovers. Five of them were coughed up by Mathurin, while another four came from Siakam, who was critical of his outing. The 29-year-old fully understands that Indiana acquired him in a trade with Toronto to help push the Pacers into a new tier alongside Haliburton. The two of them can’t fully build their chemistry until Haliburton’s minutes restriction is lifted, but that doesn’t mean Indiana can afford to keep losing games. In the meantime, Siakam believes it’s his duty to be more assertive and stop the bleeding.
“At the end of the day, I’m still the All-NBA, All-Star player on the team, so I have to be able to find ways to impact the game in that way,” Siakam said. “It doesn’t just have to do with scoring. It can be anything else, like on defense. Just finding those moments where I have to show that level (I can play at), and I think the team is gonna carry that once I do it.”
Siakam reiterated that this three-game skid has been hard on his entire team, especially Haliburton. However, the 23-year-old must continue to prioritize his long-term health over his short-term gratification.
“I really don’t know, to be honest,” Haliburton said of his minutes restriction going forward. “I think that it’s just constant conversation of what it is and just figuring it out. I know people are frustrated, but trust me, nobody’s more frustrated than I am.”
(Photo: Dylan Buell/Getty Images)