Las Vegas Sun

April 14, 2024

Analysis:

Las Vegas will light up the already-electric NBA In-Season Tournament

The first-year event has been a smashing success, and we’re lucky to host the conclusion

NBA IST Haliburton

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Indiana Pacers’ Tyrese Haliburton (0) and Buddy Hield, right, celebrate during the second half of an NBA basketball In-Season Tournament game against the Boston Celtics, Monday, Dec. 4, 2023, in Indianapolis.

The first-ever NBA In-Season Tournament game last month exceeded all expectations.

Superstar guard Damian Lillard had to take over to lead his new team, the Milwaukee Bucks, over the New York Knicks with a game-winning 3-point shot. Lillard beamed after the game and admitted he didn’t “really know what was going on” with the tournament, except he felt a different level of energy competing in it.

And that energy was propelling him and his team to one end goal.

“We’re just trying to get to Vegas,” Lillard said in an ESPN-televised postgame interview on the court.

The Bucks got to Las Vegas, and they’ll take on the Indiana Pacers at 2 p.m. today at T-Mobile Arena in the first of two NBA In-Season Tournament semifinals. A Western Conference showdown between the Los Angeles Lakers and New Orleans Pelicans follows at 6 p.m.

The two winners meet to see who will claim the first-ever NBA Cup at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at T-Mobile.

The whole NBA world is converging on Las Vegas, and it’s going to make for a spectacular scene.

Not everyone is sold on an in-season competition yet, but those who have watched group play of the tournament through the quarterfinals of the knockout stage with an open mind couldn’t have possibly come away unimpressed.

Players’ efforts, and their participation in general, have been amplified compared to a normal stretch of the regular season. The crowds have been louder. The games have been more competitive.

The inaugural event started strong, grew even better and should end with an exclamation point.

Las Vegas is going to make sure of it, as there was no better place to host the decisive games. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver first mentioned the city as a potential host of his dream tournament in 2019, and it’s paid off that he stuck to his word. 

The incentive to book a trip here for the tournament’s final four has been as much of a driving force as the money and medals awaiting the winning franchise.

Naysayers are in for a rude awakening because the NBA In-Season Tournament is here to stay.

“There’s definitely some more juice to these games and it’s exciting,” Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton, the event’s breakout star, said in a news conference after an earlier tournament game. “It’s an exciting time for the league and, you know, I think we’re all trying to push the in-season tournament to be a bigger thing because everybody wants there to be some meaning to it.”

Las Vegas is spoiled recently, in the middle of a historic run of sporting events that’s included last year’s NCAA Tournament and the recent F1 grand prix with Super Bowl 58 inching nearer to top it all off.

The NBA In-Season Tournament isn’t typically mentioned among these milestone events, but it belongs there. It should wind up even more memorable and influential than some of the other biggest competitions here because of the way it’s providing a long-overdue introduction of the format to millions of mainstream American sports fans.

Many international sports have multiple competitions running simultaneously. Soccer is the most notable example, but European basketball leagues also annually stage in-season tournaments in addition to the year-end championship.

Philadelphia 76ers coach Nick Nurse became accustomed to the idea when he coached in Belgium and England in the late 1990s through the early 2000s and began to, “love it.”

“I do (think NBA players will take it seriously),” Nurse told CBS Sports before the NBA’s version began, “but it may take a minute.”   

The players’ embrace has been quicker and stronger than Nurse and most others envisioned. A few players have expressed indifference or confusion about the tournament, but many more have endorsed it — especially after the games started.

Haliburton has spoken about how he has never played in the NBA playoffs, or won a title since high school, and how much lifting a trophy would mean to him. Lillard has sounded less concerned about the legacy part but driven by the bright lights of Las Vegas and the chance to secure his lesser-known teammates a payday.

All members of the winning team will receive $500,000, an amount some mocked considering players like Lillard and teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo make more than $40 million per year. But the prize goes all the way down to players on minimum two-way contracts, which are about $560,000 per year. An extra half-million dollars could be life-changing to a portion of the winning roster.

And to those like Lillard and Antetokounmpo? Maybe they’ll leave a chunk of the winning check behind at the nightclubs afterward as a boost to the local economy.

There’s no guarantee the NBA In-Season Tournament will be held here beyond this year. The league’s plans to bring an expansion franchise to Las Vegas after negotiating a new media rights deal after the 2024-2025 season are well known.

But the in-season tournament is only going to get bigger as the next generation of players and fans gets more acquainted with how it works. And the first one is always going to be remembered.

Locally, it should be remembered as another centerpiece in our defining run as a world-class sports host.   

“It seems like a moment,” Lillard said after that first in-season tournament game.

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or

Join the Discussion:

Check this out for a full explanation of our conversion to the LiveFyre commenting system and instructions on how to sign up for an account.

Full comments policy