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NBA In-Season Tournament update: Standings, player motivation, how it all works

While the jury is still out, a couple of weeks into the inaugural NBA In-Season Tournament, the consensus in league circles has been:

It’s added a little juice to the regular season.

“Absolutely. Been around this league for over two decades, there is reality that sets in during certain segments of the year, particularly after you get through your first 15-20 games, where you tend to sleepwalk through certain games,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said when asked if he sees a bump in energy for the tournament games. “But this in-season tournament I think is great because it’s a higher intensity level. It’s not playing for a championship, per se, but there is a champion, a crown. And I think you can’t get this far in the NBA, or being a professional basketball player, without having some sense of pride and a high level of competitiveness. So whenever you add that to the season, I think is great for the fans. I think it’s great for the viewers at home.”

It was evident last Tuesday, the most recent round of tournament games, when players were more competitive and multiple fights broke out around the league (including Draymond Green’s sleeper hold on Rudy Gobert that led to a five-game suspension).

With about half of the group play games done, it’s time to check in on the tournament and where things stand.

Remind us how the In-Season Tournament works

Here’s a quick and dirty rundown:

All 30 NBA teams have been divided into six groups of five teams each. Within that group, each team will play four Group Stage games against the other teams (two home, two road). The teams with the best record in each group — plus one wild card team from each conference — will advance to an eight-team, single-elimination knockout portion of the In-Season Tournament.

The final four teams in the tournament will come to Las Vegas on Dec. 7 and 9 for the semifinals and finals.

What are the NBA In-Season Tournament standings?

Let’s look at the standings to this point and break down the races:

West Group A

Lakers 2-0
Jazz 2-0
Trail Blazers 1-1
Suns 0-1
Grizzlies 0-3

The Lakers and Jazz play next Tuesday with the winner being in the driver’s seat to win the group (assuming the Lakers beat the Trail Blazers and the Jazz beat the Suns on Friday night). The Grizzlies have been eliminated.

West Group B

Nuggets 2-0
Rockets 1-0
Pelicans 1-1
Mavericks 1-2
Clippers 0-2

The Nuggets and Rockets face each other the day after Thanksgiving in what could be a pivotal game for the group. While not mathematically eliminated, with two losses it’s highly unlikely the Mavericks or Clippers advance.

West Group C

Timberwolves 2-0
Kings 1-0
Warriors 1-1
Thunder 1-2
Spurs 0-2

The Kings and the Timberwolves meet the day after Thanksgiving in a game that could decide this group. The Warriors need to win out to have a chance to advance, while the Thunder and Spurs are almost certainly done.

East Group A

Pacers 2-0
Hawks 1-0
76ers 1-1
Cavaliers 0-1
Pistons 0-2

Atlanta faces Philadelphia on Friday then Indiana on Tuesday in the games that will decide this group. The Pistons are not going to advance.

East Group B

Heat 2-0
Bucks 1-0
Hornets 1-1
Knicks 0-1
Wizards 0-2

This group could go down to the final day of group play, when on Nov. 28 the Bucks and the Heat face off. If the Knicks or Hornets have any chance to advance out of the group they have to win out.

East Group C

Celtics 1-0
Nets 1-1
Bulls 0-1
Magic 0-1
Raptors 0-0

It’s hard to get a read on a group where the Raptors have yet to play a game, but the Celtics are in the driver’s seat the way they are playing.

How are group ties broken?

The tiebreaker for the group stage between two teams is head-to-head results in the tournament games.

If more than two teams are tied atop a group — or, more likely, tied for the Wild Card spot in each conference — the tiebreaker is point differential. That is something coaches have talked about having to adjust to. NBA etiquette calls for teams not to run up the score and essentially dribble out a win late in a game, but with point differential mattering there is motivation to pack on otherwise meaningless points. Multiple coaches have talked about struggling to find that balance.

Are In-Season Tournament games or regular season games?

Yes. Essentially every game counts double, as a standard regular season game as well as a tournament game. That is true of every tournament game except for the title game. The two teams that reach the tournament championship will play 83 games this season.

Are players buying into the tournament?

Yes, and the motivation is pretty simple — money.

Players on the team that wins the In-Season Tournament get a $500,000 bonus each, after that it’s $200,000 each for the runners-up, $100,000 each for players on the two teams that lose in the semifinal games, and $50,000 each for those on the teams fall in the first round of the knockout stage.

"$500,000 sounds real good to us,” Anthony Davis said. “It’s going to bring that juice, you know what I mean?… I heard one of our players, I’m not going to say who but he was like, ‘Man, when we beat Phoenix, That’s one step closer to this $500 [thousand].’ I’ve never had that before. So it’s like, that’s a little extra motivation.”

While cynics argued that a $500,000 bonus would not motivate a star player making $30 million or more a season, that argument overlooks the fact that half a million dollars is a lot of money.

“The incentive is always nice. No matter how much money you have. $500,000 is nice, especially for young guys who are on their rookie contract,” the Nuggets’ Michael Porter Jr. said, via Harrison Wind. “We all have a collective goal to win, not really for the money, it’s just competing.”

“The guys who are trying to earn their stay, that prize in the end [to the tournament winner] could change their family’s lives…" Damian Lillard said, via Mike Bohn. “You don’t want to make everything about money but that’s something we can do.”

Where to watch the NBA In-Season Tournament Games

NBA national broadcast partners ESPN and TNT are broadcasting some group-play games on Tuesday and Friday nights, while the remainder of the games will be on League Pass and regional broadcast networks that traditionally carry games. The seven knockout-round games will be broadcast nationally on ESPN and TNT.

It will be hard to miss the games with their special courts and uniforms — another design feature from the NBA to make the games stand out.