When the In Season Tournament first started, there was obvious pushback. It was new, it felt weird, so naturally fans, players, talking heads etc all did their best to shit on the new idea. Then the group stage games got underway and they were wildly exciting, which started to turn fans and talking heads. The players were still reluctant, but now after the first knockout round which was filled with even more entertaining games, even the players can't deny it any longer. This tournament has been a smashing success
And now our Final 4 is set. When this whole thing started, how many people had the foursome of LAL/NO/MIL/IND? I figure most people probably had the Bucks and Lakers making it to Vegas, but that's the beauty of the tournament. Just like we see in the NCAA tournament, there's always going to be surprise teams that make a run, and for this thing it's the Pacers and Pelicans. To me, that's a pretty awesome group that's loaded with stars, the teams are all good and there's no reason to think the games won't be even more intense once we shift things to Vegas and get closer to the Final. Something tells me the NBA is just fine with the final grouping, as is anyone who simply enjoys high level basketball. Of course, there will always be people with a take like this
Mind you, the Pacers have a budding star in Tyrese Haliburton and the best offense in the NBA and the Bucks have 2 Top 75 players but why would anyone want to watch that? This isn't the only take like this you'll see, and every one is flat-out terrible.
So now that we know who the teams are that are on their way to Vegas, let's talk through each one and their chances at winning the whole damn thing
Los Angeles Lakers
IST record: 5-0
Regular season record: 13-9
I don't think it should surprise anyone that the Lakers have made it this far, especially with the way they made it through their group. A perfect 4-0 in the group stage with a +74 differential, no team in the NBA had a bigger group stage point differential than the Lakers. Their 494 points scored were the 4th most of any team, their 420 points allowed were the 2nd fewest, and as we know as long as LeBron and AD are healthy, the Lakers should be taken seriously in any sort of single elimination tournament.
Going up against the Suns last night with a spot in Vegas on the line, the Lakers proved once again what a terrible matchup they are for PHX. Their size is simply too much of an issue. So far this season the Lakers have won all 3 of the meetings between those two teams, and even if you want to make the case they are closer than you think given all wins were by 5 points or less, the reality is the Suns don't really have the bodies to match the Lakers size, not to mention they were also without Beal.
At the same time, LeBron is once again on a mission
The Lakers are one of those teams where until they are dead, you have to respect them. I say this as someone who despises them with every fiber of my being, but I've seen his before. It feels a lot like the Bubble run if we're being honest. The Lakers can't shoot (29th in 3P%, 30th in 3PM), their offense is kind of gross (24th), but none of that matters as long as LeBron is still alive. When playing a smaller team, AD can feast. Austin Reaves seems like a player who doesn't shy away from the big moment, and not only that it's clear that LeBron trusts him to take big shots in big spots
The return of Jarred Vanderbilt should also not be overlooked as we head to Vegas as well. Another versatile defender, the Lakers are going to need him when it comes to staying with all of the scoring threats on NO, and we all remember the impact he made on their playoff run last year.
To me, the Lakers' formula is pretty simple. Hunker down defensively (allowed just 103 and caused 20 TOs last night), beat teams down with your size, and then let LeBron do the rest. It worked in 2020, and seeing as how they still haven't lost a tournament game yet, it seems to be working in 2023 as well.
Do I want the Lakers to win? Fuck no. But the fact remains they're playing just as well as anyone in the league when strictly talking about IST games.
New Orleans Pelicans
IST record: 4-1
Regular season record: 12-10
While some may have wanted the Beam Team to make it to Vegas instead of the Pelicans, I personally have no problem with NO making it through. For starters, their season started by getting absolutely destroyed by injuries. Jose Alvarado, CJ McCollum, Trey Murphy, Larry Nance Jr, they all have missed legit time due to injury. You almost never see that for a team in the beginning stages of a season, and you can then forget that when healthy, this team is deep as hell.
To get to Vegas we saw the Pelicans beat the Mavs, Nuggets, Clippers, and Kings, four teams that many probably thought would be in Vegas themselves. I could make the argument that the Pelicans won the most competitive group of anyone, especially with how much better the Rockets seem to look this season. For teams like the Pelicans, who are trying to take that leap into homecourt/contention, the IST is a great test for them. Plus, it never hurts to have Zion on a big stage.
Add in the whole former Lakers (Nance Jr, Brandon Ingram, Matt Ryan) angle to the mix plus LeBron vs Zion, and this is shaping up to be an awesome matchup.
It may sound crazy, but we've yet to see Zion play a single playoff second in his career. He wasn't all that great in the knockout game vs SAC (10/6/6), so I'm very intrigued to see how he looks in something like this. While it isn't the playoffs, it is a game with extra juice that has a playoff feel, and ever since he entered the league I've wanted to see Zion in those situations.
I'm interested to see how the Lakers are able to hang with the shooting of NO now that their shooters are healthy, but on the other end Valanciunas is really the only legit size the Pelicans have, so for all we know they're going to have the same issues the Suns did when matching up with LA. While I think most people would enjoy seeing a surprise team in the Final, I'm not sure that surprise team is going to be the Pelicans unless they are going to be able to replicate their shooting effort we saw against the Kings (54,45% with 14 3PM).
IST record: 5-0
Regular season record: 15-6
Nothing about the Bucks start to the season has been pretty, but at the end of the day wins are wins. Another team undefeated in the IST and at 15-6 they own the 3rd best record in the entire NBA. Granted their group was pretty weak with NYK/MIA/CHA/WSH, but we don't have to sit here and pretend like a team with Giannis/Dame wasn't expected to find their way to Vegas. It's a shame the Celts choked the other day because a MIL/BOS battle would have been fun, but oh well.
When talking about this Bucks team, we know they're a handle offensively. Coming in at 3rd in the league in offense, I would argue the Bucks still haven't reached their potential on that end as Dame/Giannis continue to develop chemistry together. The Bucks are top 10 in both 3PA (9th) and 3PM (7th), averaging 122.3 points a night (3rd). When this team catches fire from deep, they are certainly a handful, just ask the Knicks
Not only that, good luck if you find yourself in a close game down the stretch against MIL. If you do. things aren't going to end well for you
So far this season, the Bucks are 9-3 in clutch time games with the 2nd best offense, 2nd best defense, and top net rating in the league. Dame Time is real, and when added to Giannis late in games it gives the Bucks a completely different end of game vibe. When you watch the Bucks, pretty much every game is the same in a sense that because their defense is dogshit, there's a good chance they're going to be down 10+ at some point. Then once the fourth quarter comes around they flip a switch, rip off a 10-0 run in about 2 minutes and then find a way to pull out a close win. When 12 of your 21 games are clutch time games, that's sort of who you are. It's not too different from what the Heat do who also play a billion clutch time games.
In terms of their matchup, this is not the first time MIL with face off against IND. The Pacers won that first matchup 126-124, even with Giannis going crazy and dropping 54 points. As of today, the Bucks own the 21st ranked defense, allowing opponents to score an average of 118 points a night (24th). Given the Pacers can score 150 without breaking a sweat and have already dropped 126 on a healthy MIL team, that has to be the biggest concern heading into Vegas. If you can't get consistent stops against the Pacers, Haliburton & Co are going to carve you up, just like he did in the first meeting (29/6/10 on 10-17, 5-9).
IST record: 5-0
Regular season record: 11-8
If we had to choose a "cinderella" for this tournament, the pick is obviously the Pacers. What I like about this team is that right from the jump Rick Carlisle has been open and honest about how important this tournament is for the progression of his team. They've taken it extremely seriously, and as a team that is looking to make that leap, it's been awesome to watch.
Tyrese Haliburton has exploded into a more mainstream star, and for good reason
But their success is more than just Hali. The Pacers are playing like the 7 Seconds or Less Suns on steroids. They play fast, they get threes up at a crazy rate, and when your best player is outplaying every star he sees while also never turning the ball over, it;'s easy to root for.
You could make the case that the 2023-24 Pacers have been one of if not the most fun team to watch through the first quarter of the season, which is why it's awesome that they've broken through and will now be on the big stage. To me, this is what the IST is all about. Sure it's cool that LAL/MIL made it through given their stars, but for a team like the Pacers that are trying to establish something, I just find it more enjoyable.
Are they the team of IST destiny? It certainly feels that way. For all we know they win the whole thing and it helps propel them into a top 4 seed. All they have to do is figure out a way to play even a slightly passable level of defense and this team can make serious noise. That's how good their offense is. The reason they beat the Celtics the other night wasn't just the three point shooting, it's also that when it came time to get stops in the final stretch, the Pacers locked in. They were hounding the Celts all night on the defensive end and ramped it up when things mattered most.
That is exactly how you advance in a tournament like this.
While some may think this is now a lock to get a LAL/MIL final, I disagree. I look at each matchup as a toss up, which is exciting. We don't really live in a world where we know the outcome of these games before they happen, something that was a problem in years past. I could see any four of these teams winning the whole thing, but I'm going to roll with the Pacers. There's just something about the Cinderella story combined with the massive leap Haliburton is taking that has me convinced they're going to be the ones to cut down the nets in Vegas.
Either way, the next few days should be pretty awesome to watch. See everyone in Vegas!