When it was first announced, I’m not sure anyone knew what to expect from the NBA’s inaugural In-Season Tournament. Just as there was confusion around how it worked and questioning of whether or not it was truly necessary, there was a level of excitement to see just how it would work.
Once it got underway, the level of interest in the tournament was undeniable. As Group Play came to a close, interest reached an all-time high as fans were captivated by the various scenarios that had a direct impact on which teams would advance to the Quarterfinals.
Now, the field for the Knockout Round is set. One of the Bucks, Celtics, Kings, Knicks, Lakers, Pacers, Pelicans or Suns will place their name in the history books as the first team to ever win the NBA Cup, something that we’ll one day recognize as a normal element of the 82-game season.
As these eight teams take the floor to vie for the In-Season Tournament championship, there are quite a few storylines that come to mind during the Quarterfinals and beyond. Some are to be taken seriously, others not so much, but they’re all worth keeping an eye on.
1. I’m glad the Quarterfinals open with the Pacers, a team that otherwise doesn’t get much of a spotlight. They absolutely should. Tyrese Haliburton is incredibly fun and fans will enjoy his offensive mastery. His averages of 27.0 points and 11.8 assists on .519/.447/.880 shooting splits may seem made up, but they’re very real.
2. With the top two seeds in each conference hosting the first set of games, home-court advantage will be a factor one final time.
More than just the zany court designs, we’ll get playoff atmospheres at the Golden 1 Center, Crypto.com Arena, Fiserv Forum and Gainbridge Fieldhouse, which hosted a Play-In Tournament game in 2021 but hasn’t hosted a playoff game since April of 2019. Coincidentally, that game was also against the Celtics.
3. As fun as the Pacers are, the Celtics will be favored on their side of the bracket and the Bucks will be favored to get past the Knicks. This isn’t to count either of their opponents out, but if the favorites do indeed advance, we’ll get a high-stakes look at the matchup between the teams many expect to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.
4. These games are one-offs and it’s a tournament-style competition, but it will be interesting to see just how much these coaches treat this like the playoffs, where rotations tighten and strategic choices carry much more weight. With four full months of the regular season still ahead, we might not see the biggest stars log the heavy minutes that we expect them to.
5. This is a huge moment for Zion Williamson and the Pelicans. It’s not quite postseason action but he’s missed each of the postseason games that New Orleans has played in since selecting him first overall. Williamson has been coming on strong as of late and those who have unfairly written him off might be forced to change their course based on his performance.
6. We get an extra installment of LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant. Prior to this season, we last saw the two all-timers go head-to-head on Christmas in 2018. After their first meeting this season, James provided fans with the sobering reminder that “we don’t have many [meetings] left.” Yes, they’ve met three times in the Finals already, but something about them squaring off in the first-ever In-Season Tournament Quarterfinals feels right.
7. This has to mean a little extra for Frank Vogel, right? After leading the Lakers to an NBA title in 2020, Vogel was let go at the end of the 2021-22 season. Now, he’s leading a different team with title aspirations and has an opportunity to deny his former team a trip to Las Vegas and the grand prize.
8. Speaking of Las Vegas, I’m intrigued by the potential fanfare that will come with the Semifinals. We’ve seen multiple teams in one venue during the Orlando bubble and annually at Summer League, but this is different. There will be spectators, All-Stars on every team and, based on what we saw in home arenas, a neat playing surface.
It kind of feels like we’re going to see a supercharged AAU tournament featuring the best basketball players in the world.
9. The way the bracket is set up in the West means we’ll get an up-and-comer going against a more established team with a trip to the championship on the line. Each potential matchup is a story in itself.
Lakers vs. Kings reignites the rivalry from the early 2000s, one that partially defines the era
Lakers vs. Pelicans brings the best out of each fanbase, which has continuously gone back and forth since the 2019 Anthony Davis trade
Suns vs. Kings is a battle of All-Star duos with De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis pitted against Durant and Devin Booker
Suns vs. Pelicans is a rematch of the 2022 first-round playoff series. Phoenix is a completely different team now, but there’s still some fire left over
10. How funny would it be if the Celtics-Lakers rivalry took center stage in the inaugural In-Season Tournament Championship?
The two franchises have met 12 times in the NBA Finals and they’re tied with the most NBA Finals wins with 17 apiece. For franchises that are this storied, an In-Season Tournament championship may not mean much in the grand scheme of things, but as far as rivalries go, the winner is definitely going to get some type of bragging rights.
11. There’s also a chance we get a Suns-Bucks Finals rematch that will look completely different from the all-time series that took place just two years ago. As long as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Booker are there, however, it’ll still feel similar … KD is just involved this time around. Oh, and Damian Lillard, too.
A “rematch” might even be better than things were the first time.
12. Should an up-and-comer like the Kings, Pacers or Pelicans win the title, just think about how much momentum that would give them. Coming into the tournament, I had my eye on younger teams. The newness of it all may work in their favor.
13. What will the celebration be like? Players have been very open about how much they care about the $500,000 grand prize and I think as teams continue to advance, the intensity will increase. In turn, I’m expecting a pretty emotional final game.
No matter which team comes out on top, history will be made and it could provide momentum for the remainder of the regular season.
14. Regardless of how you initially felt about the In-Season Tournament, it’s time to embrace it.
The interest will only grow as it becomes something we’re accustomed to being a part of the sixth-month NBA regular season. After all, what we’ve ended up getting from this is a handful of extra elite matchups culminating with a primetime matchup between two fun teams. It might even double as a Finals preview.
15. With these storylines in mind, here’s the best way to keep up with all of the action…