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Vegas Showed Up for NBA In-Season Tournament Semifinals

If Thursday night’s semifinals for the NBA’s inaugural In-Season Tournament at T-Mobile Arena was a test for Las Vegas hosting an NBA team, it passed with flying colors.

“It’s the worst kept secret in the world, isn’t it? That [Vegas] is eventually going to be an NBA city,” Indiana Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said, fresh off his club’s 128-119 win over the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Pacers will face the Los Angeles Lakers in Saturday’s final, pitting LeBron James against Tyrese Haliburton, one of the league’s top young stars.

“The turnout certainly shows there’s interest in the NBA game,” Carlisle continued. “I’ve been around this a long time. I believe that the NBA can make almost anything happen.”

In the opening game of the doubleheader, Haliburton had 27 points on 11-for-19 shooting. The game was within a point with just over two minutes to go when the Pacers went on a 9-2 run to eliminate the Bucks from the tournament.

“This means the world to us as a group,” Haliburton said. “That’s the point of this tournament. To see a young group like us compete and fight. We’re shocking the world right now because nobody expected us to be here.”

The Lakers blew out the New Orleans Pelicans, 133-89, in the second game of the doubleheader. James, just shy of his 39th birthday, proved he’s still in his prime, scoring 30 points on 9-for-12 shooting, 4-for-4 from beyond the three-point stripe and 8-for-8 from the foul line, all in the first three quarters. In the second quarter, James hit three consecutive threes all from 27-to-30-foot range.

“The funky courts do not bother us,” James quipped when asked what he’s learned since tournament play began.

Thanks to his dominance, the Lakers led by 39 points at the end of the third quarter, and James didn’t play a minute after that.

“You know me, I’m a simple guy so I’ll just stick to one word: extraordinary,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said when asked to explain the play of a man who has dominated the NBA for 20 years. “Other-worldly. I know, that’s two words.”

Las Vegas basketball fans seemed to eat it all up. The semifinal games were a split admission doubleheader with an audience full of celebrities, including NBA Legend Julius Erving, WNBA’s A’ja Wilson and Floyd Mayweather Jr. The first game drew 16,837 and the second sold out at 18,017 with a huge contingent of Lakers fans in the building.

The tournament has been a hit and Las Vegas as a coming NBA city seems like fate accompli.

“[Commissioner] Adam Silver is a genius,” James said.

Silver has been eying Vegas and Seattle as probable expansion cities for a while now, saying recently he’s made no commitments. The league hasn’t expanded since 2004 when a team returned to Charlotte two years after the then-Hornets moved to New Orleans.

“Las Vegas is one of those markets we’re going to look to,” Silver said. “I know that the fans in Seattle have wanted us to get back there forever.”

Seattle lost the Supersonics to Oklahoma City in 2008 and fans there have been pining for another NBA team ever since. Climate Pledge Arena, a building that was renovated at the cost of $1.15 billion by the Oak View Group and is now home to the NHL expansion Seattle Kraken, is ready and waiting for an NBA team.

The Las Vegas market has been embraced by the NHL and the NFL, as both leagues now have teams in the desert. MLB may follow, since the A’s received permission last month to relocate from Oakland to a yet-to-be-funded $1.5 billion ballpark on the Strip in the vicinity of T-Mobile Arena on nine acres of land now occupied by the Tropicana Hotel.

Oak View, separately, is in the process of assembling land south of the Strip for a $10 billion complex that would include a hotel, casino and an NBA arena.

Though shovels have not been turned on either the ballpark or NBA arena project, it’s obvious an expansion basketball team could play at T-Mobile until the Oak View project is completed. T-Mobile was a privately funded $350 million edifice opened in 2016 and is owned 42.5% each by AEG and Resorts International, and Bill Foley, the owner of the defending Stanley Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights, holding the other 15%.

Foley had been against the NBA playing in his building, but those feelings had already begun to thaw even before the success of the two neutral court games played there on Thursday night.

“It’s only a matter of time, right?” Haliburton said. “I think we all understand that. There eventually will be an NBA team here and that’s good for the growth of the game. We’re at our peak right now. More teams would be good for our league.”