The Minor Stakes Of The NBA In-Season Tournament Have Led To Good, Silly Fun
3:24 PM EST on December 6, 2023
The first elimination round of the NBA's inaugural In-Season Tournament wrapped up Tuesday night, and as the four teams left standing head to Las Vegas for the semifinals, two writers whose teams were both eliminated in the quarterfinals convened to chat about the format and their viewing experiences.
Patrick Redford: Before we mention any cities in the Mojave Desert, I wanted to start out by asking you how disappointed you think Julius Randle is that he won’t get the chance to bludgeon Obi Toppin on Thursday.
Giri Nathan: I think there might have been even more excitement running in the opposite direction. Toppin sat on the Knicks' bench behind this guy for an eternity, got sent to a farm upstate, and he now he’s living his best possible life in this all-gas-no-brakes version of the Pacers that almost replicates his exact strengths and weaknesses at a team scale. Toppin would’ve had fun in that track meet, throwing down breakaway dunks while Randle was still sulking on the opposite baseline. It’s a testament to this (badly named) tournament that we’re even entertaining the hypothetical of competitive beeves, though. What do you think about it so far, as a concept?
PR: I was prepared to feel more cynical about it than I ended up feeling, but if the grouchy counterfactual to the IST (it’s so funny to have the name of the event be a blank descriptor of the event) is that the league is manufacturing novel aesthetics and competitive games in December for the sake of juicing the forthcoming TV deal, is that really our problem? The players clearly care, and the basketball has been feisty and intense, with faint whiffs of playoff intensity. I’ve really enjoyed it thus far. You?
GN: Yeah, it's entirely reasonable to come in with the requisite cynicism around league hijinks and then also update to the reality of spectacular NBA games in late November. Success was always going to boil down to the buy-in from the players. As RJ Barrett put it, “If someone said you can go to Vegas and win $500K, would you wanna do that?” We advanced pretty quickly from players openly saying they had no idea how the tournament worked to playoff intensity pre-Thanksgiving.
There are things I’d tweak at the margins, for sure. I love the idea of visually distinguishing the courts for tournament games, even if some of the courts have looked like as if they’d vivisected Face. I sometimes wished there was more internal logic to the group-stage groups—e.g., just going with the divisions—though I get that they were angling for competitive balance. And because I’m a pervert, I’ve even enjoyed some of the awkwardness around point differential, which was a tiebreaker for the group stage. DeMar DeRozan taking offense to a late-game three-point attempt by Pascal Siakam and getting ejected, Hack-A-Drummond antics in the Celtics' rout of the Bulls, things of that nature. I like bad stuff.
PR: It was around the point when Aaron Nesmith yammed it on the fast break late in the Pacers' win on Monday that I came around on the dumb courts. They clearly don’t interfere with the basketball being played, and to see the Pacers, who are pretty clearly the protagonists of the IST, get their moment on that Bahamian flag court in those cartoonish uniforms made the novelty of it all that much more enjoyable. The exception here is the red courts—those are pure butt.
GN: Narratively, the Pacers are already an optimal outcome for this tournament. Take a team with an incandescent breakout talent but unconvincing postseason chances, and give them something to scrap for in the first quarter of the season. Scanning the Pacers' payroll right now, 500 racks is real money for a lot of these youths. Tyrese Haliburton got on a national TNT game for the first time and dropped 26-10-13 (in a cosmically perfect touch, the exact line from Domantas Sabonis in the Kings’ loss that same night). Normal citizens are exposed to his weird-ass release and 45 percent shooting from three. That's a healthy development.
Like many Knicks fans, I wanted the team to draft him instead of Toppin, but even then, in my most fantastical projections, I didn’t imagine him as the spiritual successor to seven-seconds-or-less Steve Nash, or the sweetest-shooting point guard since Steph Curry. It’s one of the coolest developmental stories in recent league history, a guy working around his physical deficits with technical genius, mining riches with the very pull-up jumper at the core of that pre-draft skepticism. What has it felt like to watch Haliburton over the past few weeks?
PR: Late in the fourth quarter, I turned to Ray Ratto and grumbled about how Haliburton is so good at everything on the basketball court except for his weirdly treacly first step, right as he blew by Jayson Tatum and got to the rack. A minute later, he nailed that four-point play stepback in Jaylen Brown’s eye and I couldn’t help but hoot. Something that’s started to creep into my fandom generally is that the hard edges of my hater's code are softening, and the quarterfinals were a big moment for that phenomenon. The pitched battle over the Sabonis-Haliburton trade won’t ever really end, and while I guess I’m supposed to at least keep myself from enjoying Haliburton, how is that even possible when he does the most outlandish stuff?
There’s a sad zero-sum nature to ingrained fandom that I think should be resisted. If you care about the game at an aesthetic level, Haliburton is at the vanguard; his skill and production are inseparable from his unorthodox game. At the other end is LeBron James, who may play for a Southern California-based extremist sect called the Los Angeles Lakers, yet is still capable of these sustained periods of genius on the court that make me shed my geographically earned hater credibility and root for him to dab on linear time, which he did on Tuesday against the Suns.
GN: Season 21, man. Still taking it to the rack like a kid two decades his junior, hurling an abundance of spicy meatballs, orchestrating the first 19 points of the fourth quarter, deconstructing every defensive coverage in his usual quantum-computing style. If you wanted to demonstrate the outermost limits of a nearly 39-year-old LeBron and 35-year-old Kevin Durant well before the postseason, just give them a single-elimination game in December. Whatever wonkiness haunted the group stage, I knew this phase of the tournament would deliver, and it can’t look much better than that game on Tuesday night, give or take the issuance of a certain Lakers timeout.
PR: The experience of watching latter-day LeBron is one of gauging measured efforts. In last season’s playoffs—particularly the Lakers' series against the Warriors—you could so clearly see him taking games easy to prepare for the next contest, and it worked until they ran up against Nikola Jokic. That he emptied the tank in early December against Durant and Devin Booker felt special, like we were being treated to something five months early. I like that their next game is against the Pelicans. As much as I wanted the Kings to win on Monday, it’s fun that only one of the four teams remaining is a real juggernaut. The Pelicans are replete with long athletic fliers, and though Zion Williamson doesn’t seem to know how to dunk anymore, his secondary playmaking is a lot sharper than it was a month ago, and the team around him is cool. What are you looking forward to in the semifinals?
GN: I remember when the Pelicans were flirting with the top seed for a good chunk of last season before Williamson degenerated into a heap of crab meat, and I was terrified by the possibility that it would be the closest they’d ever get to relevance with him at the helm. It’s a relief to see this deep, mean New Orleans squad thriving in this tournament, even when their cubic hero has a quiet night. Even if the NBA never has the luxury of marketing a healthy Zion Williamson in May, at least now it has him healthy in December. He had a flurry of nice games before Tuesday, and I think the Kings did an admirable job of throwing help and walling off his concussive driving game, so I’d expect him to bring it again in the next round.
I am not a Brandon Ingram guy, but he dutifully distributed nationwide doses of the real-hooper pill with his 30-8-6. I liked watching Jose Alvarado being a little fucker, and Jonas Valanciunas taking it to his fellow enormous countryman. I especially loved the lanky tandem of Trey Murphy and Herb Jones, ripping threes and going coast-to-coast. This tournament has created a LeBron James vs. Zion Williamson game with some real stakes. No complaints here.
PR: The IST is obviously smaller stakes, but something I keep coming back to is that all these guys are hyper-competitive and will go as hard as possible if given the opportunity. Schedule wonkiness on the back end be damned, when else have early-winter hoops been worth a shit like this?
GN: You’d have to go all the way back to this game in 2019 to find such thrills.