Inside the growing rivalry between two of the best guards in the East


Jalen Brunson vs. Tyrese Haliburton, two players already famous for being slighted, is a matchup ready for prime time that’s currently in prime time. And naturally for the two of them, it still might be getting overlooked.

The unfolding drama in this New York KnicksIndiana Pacers second-round series, which resumes with Sunday’s Game 4 and the Knicks ahead 2-1, has many shiny objects, including history, competing for attention.

There have been three high-intensity fourth quarters in which the winning team has made a comeback; a stream of injuries; nightly officiating complaints; and the playoff heroics of role players such as Josh Hart, Donte DiVincenzo and Andrew Nembhard that have turned these games into immediate classics.

Of course, Brunson and Haliburton also have had their fingerprints all over the series. But what they’re actually doing, engaging in an All-Star boxing match, has been getting lost in the rest of the noise. And it could be a preamble for a multiyear Eastern Conference battle: two lead guards on rising teams with a history longer than each of them has been alive.

“I don’t think it’s as much about me versus him as much as it is our teams versus each other,” Haliburton said after the Pacers pulled out a 111-106 victory in Game 3’s final minute on Friday. “He’s doing what he has to do for his team to win games, and I got to do that, as well, to give my team the best chance to win. So, it’s less about matchup and who’s scoring or who’s doing what. That’s for [fans] to talk about. We’re just trying to win games.”

Despite dealing with a right foot injury that has forced him to come off the floor in both Games 2 and 3, Brunson is averaging 32.7 points and 5.7 assists on 50% shooting.

The foot injury disrupted Brunson’s historic four-game run of 40-pointers in Game 2. But in Game 3, even with his mobility limited, Brunson made a clutch 3-pointer with 40 seconds left that tied the score.

Haliburton, for his part, came into the series battling back spasms and had an absent Game 1, scoring just six points. Playing in the postseason for the first time, he vowed to bounce back — and has. In Game 2, he scored 34 points with 9 assists, 6 rebounds and 3 steals. In Game 3, he put up 35 points with 7 assists and 2 steals.

Haliburton got banged up twice Friday night, colliding on a drive to the basket with Knicks guard Miles McBride and slamming his tailbone on the court. Then on a transition drive in the fourth quarter, Haliburton rolled his right ankle. He was limping around after the contest, needing both railings to descend the two steps off the postgame lectern and moving gingerly in the locker room as though he had indeed been in a boxing match.

“Overall, my body right now is hurting but, I mean, they got guys hurting too,” Haliburton said. “So, we got to understand everybody’s hurting right now.”

It’s not a prototypical head-to-head rivalry. Brunson and Haliburton typically don’t guard each other. They play different styles: Brunson is more methodical and comfortable in dribble-heavy isolation, while Haliburton is a fleet-footed passing specialist who prefers to play at speed. Haliburton smiles throughout the game. Brunson might smile in July. Haliburton is loquacious in media settings. Brunson is low-key, carefully answering without much fanfare.

“I have all the respect in the world for him and the way he plays the game,” Brunson said of Haliburton, right on brand. “He goes out there and plays the right way and does what he needs to do.”

Pacers coach Rick Carlisle, who coached Brunson for two seasons with the Dallas Mavericks, said of the matchup, “It’s pretty clear that doubters are something they both welcome. And when people doubt them, they dig in harder.”

But there’s also something else to the Brunson-Haliburton story that sits below the surface.

In April, Team USA announced its roster for the Paris Olympics. The spots were highly coveted and one of the reasons Haliburton and Brunson invested their summers with Team USA at the FIBA Basketball World Cup in 2023. Brunson even rescheduled his wedding at nearly the last minute to join the team.

But it was Haliburton — not Brunson — who got the Paris invitation. It stunned Knicks fans, among others, as Brunson had an explosive season that saw him finish fifth in Most Valuable Player voting, higher than any player on the Team USA roster.

“I’m just focused on the playoffs,” Brunson said flatly when the team was announced. “I didn’t even look at the list.”

USA basketball showed interest in Brunson early on — both in 2015, when he was selected to represent the country at the under-17 World Cup in an event he ended up dominating, and in the 2023 World Cup cycle.

Last year, national team coach Steve Kerr not only made Brunson a top selection for the senior FIBA World Cup roster but basically handed over the keys to him as the team leader and starting point guard before there was a single practice.

Kerr and his partners, USA Basketball managing director Grant Hill and national team director Sean Ford, had their reasons for not extending Brunson the invitation in April. They explained them to Brunson when they called with their decision before the teams were announced. And they weren’t unreasonable.

Brunson played fine but didn’t excel at the World Cup, the thinking went, averaging 11 points and four assists on 50% shooting. But Kerr ended up playing Haliburton, who came off the bench, more often at the end of games.

The international game seems to favor Haliburton’s style more than Brunson’s. Haliburton is three inches taller too, a trait Team USA prioritizes in international competition. It also is possible Brunson could be added to the roster this summer, as several players on the team are managing injuries.

The two have become friends since landing on Team USA last year, with Haliburton, who played at Iowa State, joking that while competing on the national squad with former Villanova teammates Brunson, Josh Hart and Mikal Bridges, he was a “substitute Donte” — referring to DiVincenzo, the Villanova product who wasn’t on the team. When Haliburton and the Pacers clinched the playoffs last month, the first call he received was congratulations from Brunson.

So, the national team aspect of their rivalry will probably stay out of the spotlight, even if it won’t be forgotten, especially by Brunson.

But this entire arc, Haliburton vs. Brunson, could just be getting started.

“I think we would both probably tell you that we have familiarity with each other by now,” Haliburton said. “We know what we can do.”


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