NBA in-season tournament: Dream final? What should change?

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Malik Monk puts Kings ahead, Steph Curry comes up short at buzzer (0:27)

Malik Monk puts the Kings ahead with 8 seconds remaining, and Steph Curry can't hit the 3 at the other end as Sacramento advances in the in-season tournament. (0:27)

The NBA's inaugural in-season tournament has reached the knockout rounds, which will see one team lift the NBA Cup and each of its players win $500,000 in prize money. What started with all 30 teams playing four group stage games has now been whittled down to eight quarterfinalists.

Four teams from each conference will play for the right to advance to the semifinals on Dec. 7 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, followed by the championship game on Dec. 9. On Monday, the Indiana Pacers will host the Boston Celtics, while the New Orleans Pelicans will travel to the Sacramento Kings.

On Tuesday, the New York Knicks will visit the Milwaukee Bucks, followed by LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers welcoming the Phoenix Suns. The tourney has created plenty of buzz for its unique format, newly designed courts and an uptick in interest among fans for early-season games.

Ahead of next week's quarterfinals, our experts look at the biggest questions: what they've liked so far about the tournament, who has been the best player, what should be changed, and who will ultimately make history by winning the first tournament title.

1. The group stage of the in-season tournament was ___?

Tim MacMahon: Fun. The league office figured out a way to give some extra juice to a set of early regular-season games. The colorful courts were a great marketing gimmick that clearly branded those contests as tournament games and got people to talk about the NBA during football season. If the league can claim Tuesday and Friday nights during the fall, that's a massive win.

Jamal Collier: Taken more seriously than I anticipated, by fans, media, players and teams alike. Everyone seemed to have enjoyed it and it gave the pre-Christmas Day portion of the schedule some intrigue. The point-differential tiebreakers might have been a little confusing but 100% worth it just to see Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla have to apologize to his Chicago Bulls counterpart Billy Donovan for badly beating his team.

Dave McMenamin: A smashing success. Stars bought in. The coaches followed the rules of the competition, even if it meant eschewing the institutionalized practice of not running up the score late in games. The courts and uniforms gave it a unique feel. And there were a bunch of really fun games that came down to the wire.

Kendra Andrews: Exactly what the league wanted it to be. It created meaningful and exciting basketball in November. Between keeping an eye on point differential and the different courts, it created a lot of fun basketball for games that wouldn't have mattered as much. The icing on the cake was the final game of group play -- the Warriors vs. the Kings -- being as dramatic of a finish as you could want.

Tim Bontemps: A victory for NBA commissioner Adam Silver. The longtime advocate of this event finally saw his vision realized, and the result was much more interest in the NBA over the past several weeks than there is in a typical November.


2. Which game of the in-season tournament quarterfinals is the most intriguing?

MacMahon: Suns-Lakers certainly has the most sizzle. It's a special occasion any time LeBron James and Kevin Durant match up, which occurred for the first time in five years this season. We're talking about the all-time leading scorer and a guy who will likely be in the top 10 by the time they meet next week, and they're both still performing at All-NBA levels. With Suns guard Devin Booker and Lakers big man Anthony Davis, this game packs some serious star power.

Collier: Knicks-Bucks should be a fun matchup. It almost looked like these teams were headed for a playoff matchup last season before Milwaukee got upset in the first round, so an in-season tourney knockout game between the two will instead take its place. Both teams are really starting to find themselves after getting off to a slow start, with the Bucks winning eight of their past nine and the Knicks winning eight of their past 11.

Andrews: I've got my eye on Kings-Pelicans. When the in-season tournament was first introduced, I thought it would be perfect for the younger, up-and-coming teams looking to make a splash. Both these teams fit that bill. Zion Williamson and De'Aaron Fox are two of the most intriguing young stars in the NBA, and both of their teams are looking to prove they are the real deal.

McMenamin: Indiana-Boston. This Pacers team represents how the tourney can better the NBA experience for all involved: A young team that's yet to break through gets to experience a playoff-like atmosphere, while fans get to see an emerging star like Tyrese Haliburton blossom on the national stage. Indiana, and its league-leading 127.6 points-per-game average, gets a chance to upset an NBA title favorite in Boston on its home court for the right to go to Las Vegas. What an opportunity.

Bontemps: The league has four very good matchups, but I'll also go with Kings-Pelicans. Williamson is healthy and New Orleans is playing well, while the incredible Sacramento crowd will be fired up to see its team have a chance to go to Las Vegas. With Fox also playing at a high level for the Kings, this game could provide some late-night fireworks.


3. Who is your in-season tournament MVP so far?

Andrews: LeBron James. He led the Lakers to 4-0 in group play, and the level at which he is playing at the age of 38 is astonishing. Whether he wants to win the $500,000 prize for each of his younger teammates, or eyes yet another trophy, James has been incredible in these tournament games.

Bontemps: James. I'll go with the best player on the best team, and the Lakers star is both of those things in tournament play so far -- a remarkable achievement for a player a month away from his 39th birthday. It would be fitting for James to find his way to Las Vegas as part of what the league hopes is a new tradition.

Collier: Tyrese Haliburton. He's already having a fantastic season, off to an even better start after making the All-Star team last season, but he turned it up during group play. Indiana is just 5-7 in non-tournament games, but in this event, Haliburton has averaged 28.5 points and 13.5 assists to lead Indiana to its 4-0 record.

MacMahon: Damian Lillard averaged an efficient 30 points and 7 assists as the Bucks went undefeated in group play. He also had the best quote to sum up the experience during his postgame interview with ESPN's Ros Gold-Onwude after the group stage win over the Knicks: "You can tell it's like something is happening, but it's new, so I'm not really sure what the hell is going on ... It seems like a moment -- the court, the uniforms, TV game and all that -- but I don't think nobody really knows what's going on. We just trying to get to Vegas."

McMenamin: Kevin Durant. While he missed one of the Suns' group play games with right foot soreness, his numbers in the other three were sublime -- 35.7 points on 58.6/75/86.7 shooting splits, 7.3 rebounds and 7.7 assists. The 17-year vet can't get enough praise for how he returned to dominant form -- and stayed there -- after his Achilles surgery in 2019.


4. What's one thing about the tournament you'd change?

Collier: I still think there needs to be something that gives fans a reason to care who wins the tournament. Maybe the winner gets no worse than the No. 9 seed, which guarantees a home play-in game at worst, no matter what happens the rest of the season. Imagine the intensity for fans of teams on the rise knowing they're going to the postseason, or the teams fighting for positioning in a crowded Western Conference guaranteeing themselves a spot.

MacMahon: As someone who believes sportsmanship is the most overrated thing in sports, I'm all for running up the score. However, for the sake of attempting to keep the peace, the league should probably cap the point differential benefits for each individual game. Maybe put 15 points as the maximum to prevent the awkwardness of intentionally hacking a bad free throw shooter midway through the fourth quarter of a blowout.

McMenamin: The No. 1 seed coming out of group play should be able to pick its opponent instead of automatically facing the fourth-seeded wild-card team in the quarterfinals. That way a team like the Lakers, which already beat Phoenix in group play, could choose to play New Orleans or Sacramento, for example, rather than having to beat the Suns again to advance.

Andrews: Would it be possible for these games not to count toward the teams' overall records? Warriors coach Steve Kerr made an interesting point: If you need to win by 12 in order to make the quarterfinals but you're only up by two with seconds to go, do you try to take it to overtime to get the points and advance? Or just take the win to help your playoff seeding? It's an interesting dilemma, one that could create even more drama if the games didn't count twice.

Bontemps: The biggest thing that needs to change won't come until the league decides to expand to 32 teams. At that point, you can have eight groups of four teams, have everyone play twice and then move on to the knockout rounds. The current format leaves some teams watching on the last day of competition, which makes for a slightly awkward situation.


5. Make your picks! What is your championship matchup -- and who will win?

Bontemps: Celtics over Kings. Boston should take care of Indiana Monday, and I like the Celtics' chances once they get to Las Vegas. I can argue for any of the West teams, but I think Sacramento will beat the Pelicans in front of its incredible crowd Monday, and the extra day of rest will help the Kings against the winner between the Suns and Lakers.

Andrews: Lakers over Celtics. This matchup would become an instant classic, given the pedigree and history between these two franchises. The Celtics have been one of the best teams in the league, but the Lakers have been the best team in group play, and I think they want these bragging rights just a bit more than Boston.

MacMahon: Celtics over Suns. This isn't exactly going out on a limb with Boston having the best record and best net rating in the league. The Suns, similarly, have the best overall record and net rating among the West's qualifiers.

Collier: Celtics over Lakers. The NBA couldn't have dreamed it up any better. It's the perfect inaugural matchup to add legitimacy to the tournament. As the best team in the league so far this season, I'd expect the Celtics to keep that up in Las Vegas en route to winning.

McMenamin: Lakers over Knicks. L.A. has appeared to be extremely motivated to win the cash prize, and New York is a gritty group that could grind out a couple of upsets to reach the final. Plus, for a tourney that Silver has already casually referred to as the "David Stern Cup," there's no title game that would please the late commissioner more than a matchup between the league's two biggest markets.