MIAMI—Khris Middleton had a thought pop into his head immediately after Milwaukee topped Miami to finish group play in the NBA’s In-Season Tournament with an unbeaten record.
“We’re going to Vegas,” he said.
Maybe. But not yet. Middleton didn’t know he'd skipped one important step—the quarterfinals.
Hey, some people are evidently still learning the tournament format. It gets simple now, though, with the inaugural event down to its final eight teams.
In the Eastern Conference, it‘ll be Milwaukee hosting New York on Dec. 5 and Indiana playing host to Boston on Dec. 4; in the Western Conference, it’ll be the Los Angeles Lakers hosting Phoenix on Dec. 5 and Sacramento—thanks to a huge comeback over Golden State—playing host to New Orleans on Dec. 4.
The winners go to Las Vegas for semifinal games on Dec. 7, and those winners play Dec. 9 to be the first team to hoist the NBA Cup and win $500,000 per player, $250,000 for those on two-way deals.
“It‘d be pretty cool to be part of history,” Middleton said. “You always want to be the first to win something. It’d definitely be cool to be the first to win the first In-Season Tournament.”
Milwaukee, Indiana, the Lakers and the Kings all made all the guesswork easy; they were the teams that went 4–0 in group play. Everything else came down to tiebreakers.
In the East, Boston, New York, Cleveland, Orlando and Brooklyn all went 3–1 and kept trying to pile up points. Boston outscored the teams in its group by 27 points, compared with a plus-22 differential for Orlando and plus-20 for Brooklyn. That meant the Celtics won East Group C.
“You just know what the reason is,” Nets forward Mikal Bridges said. “It’s trying to make it to Vegas. There’s no harm at all. We know that point differential is another key besides just winning.”
Still, chasing points led to some weirdness in the Celtics’ blowout victory over Chicago on Tuesday.
Boston, up by 32 points with 7:02 left, intentionally fouled Chicago’s Andre Drummond to try and get the ball back and ensure it would win any differential tiebreaker over the Nets and Magic. Bulls coach Billy Donovan didn’t like it, understandably, and seeing Boston’s Payton Pritchard shoot a 3-pointer—it missed—up by 26 with 10.8 seconds remaining was something out of the ordinary as well.
“I had to explain to him, ‘This is what our people are telling us, this is what we have to do, this is the process towards protecting our lead,’” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said of his in-game conversation with Donovan. “It gives us the best chance to win and advance.”
New York got the East wild card on point differential over the Cavaliers, Magic and Nets.
“I understand the concept,” Knicks guard Josh Hart said. “But it’s weird.”
Here’s more weirdness: All the quarterfinal matchups will be between teams that are now assured of playing each other five times in this regular season—something that hasn’t happened in the league since 2003–04, when Miami and New Jersey had five meetings.
The West race didn’t end up with quite as much drama as the East had with the down-to-the-wire differential chasing. Phoenix (3–1) got the wild card over Minnesota (3–1) because of point differential—the Suns outscored opponents by 34 points, the Timberwolves finished with a differential of zero.
Golden State needed to beat Sacramento by 12 points to win West Group C; the Warriors led by 24 in the first half and by 18 midway through the third quarter, but the Kings roared back to end Golden State’s tournament hopes with a 124–123 win.
The 22 teams that didn’t make the quarterfinals will play regular-season games on Dec. 6 and Dec. 8 to fill out the two remaining spots on their 82-game schedule. The teams that lose in the quarterfinals will play a to-be-added regular-season game against each other, East vs. East and West vs. West. The semifinal games count as regular-season games as well—and the championship game will not count in the standings.
“Love it. I wish I had an opportunity to be still playing for going to Vegas and the opportunity to play for something in the inaugural year and winning it,” Heat guard Kyle Lowry said. “But, you know, I think it’s just going to be a really good thing.”
And no matter who wins in Vegas, every team still has a chance at the big prize—the NBA title.
“We still have a marathon to run,” Lowry said. “That was a sprint.”