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NBA In-Season Tournament takeaways: League gets Lakers-Suns, Knicks-Bucks and other great knockout round games

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The group stage of the NBA’s inaugural In-Season Tournament has come and gone, and now we know who will face off in the knockout stage. On Monday, it will be the Indiana Pacers hosting the Boston Celtics in the early game and the New Orleans Pelicans visiting the Sacramento Kings in the nightcap. On Tuesday, the New York Knicks will head to Milwaukee to face the Bucks and the last game of the quarterfinal round will be the Phoenix Suns in Los Angeles to take on the Lakers.

But how did we get here? We already knew one matchup coming into Tuesday. Barring some extreme blowouts that we didn’t get, we knew about the Lakers-Suns matchup. The Kings, who won a thriller over the Warriors Tuesday night, won West Group C and will take on the Pelicans, the West Group B winner, after the Rockets lost to the Mavericks.

In the East, the Bucks held off the Heat on Tuesday to clinch a 4-0 run through East Group B, and waiting for them in the knockout stage will be a familiar opponent. The Knicks faced the Bucks in their first tournament matchup, and while they fell short of a massive second-half comeback, New York is likely thrilled at the chance for revenge they’re about to get.

The other Eastern Conference knockout stage features two teams that have played in one of the more lopsided games of the season to date. The 4-0 Pacers, winners of East Group A, will host the 3-1 Celtics, winners of East Group C. The last time these teams met during the regular season, the Celtics blasted the Pacers, 155-104 on Nov. 1. This time, however, the Pacers have earned home-court advantage due to their superior group play point-differential.

So now that we’ve reached the conclusion of the group stage, what are our major takeaways? Here are three big ones:

The league couldn’t have asked for a better field

What would the league have wanted out of its knockout stage field before the tournament began? A few things, in theory. Obviously, some big-market contenders would help quite a bit with television ratings. You’d also want a few newer, younger teams that the tournament could help market. Finally, the remaining teams should at least have stars fans will be familiar with.

We got all of the above.

  • The Lakers and Knicks are the two biggest markets in the league. Both are in the final eight. So are the Celtics, the league’s most historic franchise.
  • You want young stars to sell? How about Tyrese Haliburton, who has literally never played in nationally televised game. This tournament will be his introduction to the wider sports world. Toss in Zion Williamson’s grand return to the main stage and the continued rise of De’Aaron Fox’s Kings and you have plenty of new faces to sell.
  • Our remaining teams, the Suns and Bucks, employ two former MVPs (Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo) and two other All-NBA players (Devin Booker and Damian Lillard).

This is, essentially, a perfect mix. The NBA got everything it could have wanted out of the final eight, and now Las Vegas stands to be the perfect advertising vehicle for what will surely become the next major staple on the NBA calendar.

Is point-differential working as a tiebreaker?

In terms of measuring team quality, point-differential is pretty universally considered to be more accurate than record. There’s a reason net rating has become such a popular stat. If the goal of the group stage was strictly to reward the teams that played the best basketball in their four games, it makes perfect sense as a tiebreaker.

Of course, that’s not the only goal at play here. The league is also trying to launch a permanent event here, ideally one that fans can easily understand and embrace. But that’s not how Tuesday went. Most of the night’s slate featured meaningful games in outcome, yes, but also in scoring margins. It was confusing to track how much each team needed to win by in order to advance, especially when multiple teams involved in any scenario were still playing.

Plus, it’s become clear that not every player is on board with running up scores. DeMar DeRozan got himself ejected from a game last week after complaining about it. Jayson Tatum complained as well earlier this week — only for his Celtics to go into hack-a-Drummond mode to scrounge up every last point against DeRozan’s Bulls.

Bottom line: There’s no perfect solution, but the league is going to be open-minded here. A lot has worked in this first tournament run. This specific component has been more of a mixed bag. If there’s a better solution out there, the league will look for it.

There’s no favorite here

It’s hard to say if any single team stands out here. It’s a remarkably balanced crowd. The Pacers, Knicks and Pelicans are the teams in the field with the most exploitable weaknesses, but all three are .500 or better and have All-Stars on their rosters. Even if their presence makes life a bit easier on the Celtics, Bucks and Kings, nobody has an easy game in the knockout stage.

What happens when we get to Vegas? The Western Conference teams probably have a slight advantage in terms of travel and fans. The Lakers in particular have had robust crowds at Summer League over the years. They should similarly be a draw in this tournament. Like Los Angeles, Phoenix is a relative short-hop flight from Vegas, so the Suns should be well-supported too.

This tournament field, much like the NBA championship field this season, has no obvious favorite. Your pick should probably just be the team you think is the best among the survivors. In a single elimination setting, anything can happen.

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