In-Season Tournament: Quarterfinals Preview

Published December 1, 2023, 8:00 AMSteve Aschburner

After all of the frenetic Group Play drama, 8 teams remain in the Knockout Rounds with a shot at the NBA Cup.

The NBA’s first In-Season Tournament is new. Its quarterfinal matchups are anything but.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. A little built-in rivalry can add context to these asterisked 2023-24 regular season games. It’s merely a quirk of Group Play that the Knockout Rounds pairings all have been seen at least once in the first five-plus weeks.

Now these teams will face each other five times by mid-April. Five or more meetings in a season hasn’t happened since the league expanded to 29 teams in 1995-96. (It’s still a far cry from the days of Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell butting heads 12 times each season in the early 1960s).

Adding flavor to the Battles for Las Vegas — where the Tournament semifinals and championship game will be held — are individual stars. Four of the league’s Top 10 scorers have reached the quarterfinals: Kevin Durant (31.3 ppg, No. 2), De’Aaron Fox (30.7, No. 4), Giannis Antetokounmpo (30.1, No. 6) and Jayson Tatum (27.7, No. 10). The bracket also boasts the leading assists man, Indiana’s Tyrese Haliburton (11.9), and the third-leading rebounder, Sacramento’s Domantas Sabonis (11.6).

Eastern Conference

Boston at Indiana, Monday (7:30 p.m. ET, TNT)

So far: The Celtics won a blowout, 155-104, on Nov. 1 in Boston, a game in which point differential didn’t matter.

Key matchup: Tyrese Haliburton vs. Jrue Holiday. Haliburton could be a heavy Kia MVP candidate if the Pacers continue to play at a 46-victory rate after last season’s 35-47 finish. He leads the NBA with 11.9 assists per game while scoring 25.9 ppg and shooting above 50/40/90. But he’ll be matched up Monday with arguably the best defensive guard in Holiday. Holiday had 15 points and seven rebounds against Indiana on Nov. 1, while Haliburton was inactive with a right ankle sprain.

Notes: It’s a clash of styles and philosophies, pitting the team with the league’s No. 1 offense (122.5 points per 100 possessions) against the second-stingiest defense (107.1). The Pacers also blitz opponents with the No. 1 effective field-goal percentage (58.4) and rank low in turnovers, but they also give up as many points as any other team. And Boston is no slouch offensively, ranking ninth (116.9).

They find common ground from the arc, combining for 82.6 3-point attempts and 30.8 makes per game. … Starting with this game, these teams face each other four more times by the end of January.

Pick: Celtics. Indiana went unbeaten in Group Play and can tuck away a building-block achievement in Vegas. But Boston is on a greater mission and two steps up in quality.

New York at Milwaukee, Tuesday (7:30 p.m. ET, TNT)

So far: The Bucks won 110-105 on Nov. 3 at Fiserv Forum in the first In-Season Tournament game for both teams. Milwaukee’s bench outscored New York’s 33-21 to overcome Jalen Brunson’s 45-point barrage.

Key matchup: Jalen Brunson vs. Damian Lillard. Brunson is the Knicks’ motor, leading them in points, assists, shots and 3-point percentage. He averaged 24.7 ppg last season against the Bucks but shot just 41.9% and 27.8% from deep. Lillard scored 30 in the November meeting and has averaged 25.9 ppg and shot 41.9% on 3-pointers in his career against New York.

Notes: The Bucks got here as one of the four 4-0 teams in Group Play, while the Knicks routed Charlotte Tuesday to earn the wild card on points. New York is one of the top rebounding teams with an NBA-best 53.9% percentage. Milwaukee is average, all but conceding the offensive boards (26th of 30).

New York’s season has been dependent on beating lesser teams and is 2-7 against teams over .500. … Antetokounmpo and Lillard have been building chemistry in pick-and-rolls, but Khris Middleton’s ramp-up (knee) is just as important. They are 6-1 when he plays at least 20 minutes.

Pick: Bucks. Milwaukee’s season so far under first-year coach Adrian Griffin has been bumpier than its 13-5 record indicates, so Tournament game or not, this is simply more classroom to be its best self. New York would love a trip to Nevada, but this layover in Milwaukee could scuttle that.

Western Conference

New Orleans at Sacramento, Monday (10 p.m. ET, TNT)

So far: The Pelicans beat the Kings twice two weeks ago in New Orleans, first by 36 points and then by five two nights later.

Key matchup: Wings vs. guards. Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson combined to score 104 of New Orleans’ 246 points in the first two meetings, 42% of the Pelicans’ total. The Kings’ backcourt is fueled by clutch specialist De’Aaron Fox and Kia Sixth Man prospect Malik Monk, along with center Domantas Sabonis.

Notes: Sacramento was 0-2 vs. Golden State until it edged the Warriors Tuesday 124-123 to go 4-0 and snag the West Group C quarterfinal spot. Now the Kings face the same challenge down 0-2 to New Orleans. … Monk ranks sixth in the NBA in points off the bench and has shot 40.2% from the arc in reserve.

Pelicans guard CJ McCollum returned Wednesday after missing a dozen games with a right lung malady. He scored 20 points in 28 minutes as the Pelicans beat the Sixers. … The Pelicans have won six of their past seven when Williamson plays.

Pick: Kings. New Orleans likes its chemistry since a team meeting in mid-November. But Sacramento sees the NBA Cup as another milestone toward title contention. Besides, the Kings have just one scheduled road game between last week and Christmas, so a side trip to Las Vegas would be welcome.

Phoenix at Los Angeles Lakers, Tuesday (10 p.m. ET, TNT)

So far: The Lakers have beaten the Suns twice, first in L.A. on Oct. 26 and then in the In-Season opener for both on Nov. 10 in Phoenix.

Key matchup: LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant. It’s not a 1-on-1 clash since each will face different defenders. These two future Hall of Famers have met 23 times in the regular season, with almost identical scoring averages (27.3 for Durant, 27.2 for James) but a huge outcome advantage for LeBron (17-6).

Notes: Shorthanded or not, the Lakers’ 44-point drubbing in Philadelphia Monday was a gut-check, especially defensively (they rank 26th in opponents’ made 3s). And L.A. is 3-6 when Anthony Davis fails to score 20 or more.

Suns guard Bradley Beal continues to be waylaid by back/leg pain. … Phoenix’s 8-2 record with Devin Booker is a case of good news-bad news. As a de facto point guard, he is averaging a career-best 8.5 assists without losing his scoring touch (27 ppg, 40% on 3-pointers). But he pushes to return from injuries, only to get hurt again, explaining his repeat absences.

Pick: Lakers. Phoenix hasn’t had its guys and won’t feel any shame missing out on Las Vegas with title aspirants such as Denver and Philadelphia. No one, meanwhile, has been more openly enthusiastic about the In-Season Tournament than James, whom the league would be pleased to see hoisting the inaugural NBA Cup and MVP hardware.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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