LAS VEGAS -- On their march to the NBA's in-season tournament's title game, the Indiana Pacers have knocked off the Cleveland Cavaliers, Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks -- the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference playoffs last season.
Now, Indiana finds itself up against the Los Angeles Lakers and LeBron James in Saturday's title game, with the right to be the first team to lift the NBA Cup on the line -- a situation Tyrese Haliburton says feels like a storybook ending to Indiana's coming-out party over the past few months.
"Like any kid born in 2000, LeBron was my favorite player growing up," Haliburton said Friday afternoon after Indiana's practice here at T-Mobile Arena, "and it's hard for him not to be for a lot of us. Growing up, I was a Cavs fan, then a Heat fan, then a Cavs fan again, then a Lakers fan before I got drafted. It's just how it went.
"To be able to compete against him in a championship is kind of like a storybook [ending] a little bit, and it's going to be a lot of fun. But that's the great part about being in the NBA, getting to compete against your idols on a nightly basis. I really look forward to that."
The Pacers have been looking forward to this tournament since before it began, seeing it as an opportunity to put themselves on the national NBA radar after missing the playoffs for the past four seasons -- and for Haliburton, individually, to launch himself into superstardom after making his first All-Star appearance last season and playing for Team USA's FIBA World Cup entry this summer.
And, so far, it's been mission accomplished on that front, as the Pacers have taken down every big-name player and foe that's come before them, including upsetting both the Celtics and Bucks within the past few days to earn their place in Saturday's title game.
There is no bigger thing in the NBA, though, than going up against James and the Lakers, who dismantled the New Orleans Pelicans Thursday night behind another transcendent performance from James, who will turn 39 later this month.
Pacers coach Rick Carlisle has seen James in big moments before, most notably in the 2011 NBA Finals, when his Dallas Mavericks beat James and the Miami Heat to win the NBA title, and couldn't be more impressed with how James is playing in his 21st NBA season.
"LeBron James is in his prime still," Carlisle said. "I'm watching the guy last night, and it's phenomenal. This is a guy -- someone just gave me the stat. He's the only player in NBA history who has been the youngest player in the league and the oldest player in the league, both. That speaks to obviously an amazing run of longevity and, in his case, greatness.
"He's the all-time leading scorer, and if there's a Mount Rushmore, he's one of the guys on the NBA Mount Rushmore. That's what we're up against tomorrow. We're up against him and Anthony Davis and a lot of other very good players that are on a real uptick right now competitively.
"We've got our hands full. But if you're the Indiana Pacers and you're in the process of making the climb and you want great experience, this is the kind of challenge that you've got to love."
It's exactly the kind of challenge that the Pacers have repeatedly embraced throughout this tournament. For a young team that has several players -- including, most notably, Haliburton -- waiting to make the playoffs for the first time, getting to the postseason has been set as the goal this group hopes to achieve this season.
And going through this experience, and beating the elite teams the Pacers have on their way to reaching this point, is something Indiana believes has served the dual purpose of both putting Indiana on the map and preparing this group for the challenges that lie ahead.
"I think it's a step in that direction," Pacers center Myles Turner said. "I don't think we're fully accomplished until we get to the end goal of getting to the playoffs and advancing there. But this is a great little precursor to it. Guys get to see our style of play, just how exciting it is just to watch us play at that. But of course, anytime you can win a championship, it bodes well for your morale, your organization, the team, spirit overall."
Winning this weekend's championship, though, requires going through James. And after James said earlier this week that he's trying to give Father Time its first loss, Pacers guard T.J. McConnell said he is currently on a path to doing so.
"They're on a roll and LeBron ... Father Time's usually undefeated, but he's beating him right now," McConnell said. "So it's, he's playing at an incredible level and their whole team is, so we got to be locked in and be ready for a full 48 minutes."