The NBA In-Season Tournament is doing what it intended. Now things should heat up more

There are “playoff” spots at stake starting this week, including Tuesday night’s late matchup between the Jazz and Lakers.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Phoenix Suns forward Keita Bates-Diop (21) moves in on Utah Jazz guard Keyonte George (3) as the Utah Jazz host the Phoenix Suns during NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 17, 2023.

There was no shortage of reasons why the NBA In-Season Tournament was put together. And the benefits are already clear: ratings are up, people are talking about games before Christmas and some players say there’s an extra energy in those contests.

That means it’s working. And given that knockout-round spots are at stake starting this week, it’s reasonable to think the interest will only keep growing.

“I was just interested to see how it would happen, how it would work,” Sacramento guard De’Aaron Fox said last week after his team moved to 2-0 in tourney play. “I’m not one of those guys who are like, ‘I think it’s dumb,’ because I don’t. I think it could be interesting for this league.”

Entering Tuesday, 37 of the 60 games in the group stage of the inaugural tournament had been played. (Another five were set for Tuesday, including a late tip between the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers.) Ratings are up; the games being shown on ESPN have gotten 55% more viewers than the ones in comparable windows got last year. It’s not exactly must-see-TV yet — those tournament games shown nationally are drawing about 1.7 million viewers — but better numbers are better numbers, which is the point.

Tell people that a game means more, and they’ll be more inclined to watch. It’s a certainty that some of the 10 games on Friday will have implications on who advances to the quarterfinals, and the same rings true for the final eight group-stage games that’ll be played on Nov. 28.

Some of the courts look a little funky,” Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James said as the tournament was getting underway and players were getting used to it all — including the different paint schemes on the tourney-game floors, which has drawn criticism from players like Boston’s Jaylen Brown and others over safety concerns. Slipping has been a factor in some games.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah Jazz play against the Portland Trail Blazers in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023.

“But I think it’s great, in the sense for the league to spice things up,” James added. “I did see some of the quotes from some of the players that some of the games felt like a playoff atmosphere, that type intensity. So, that’s great.”

A reminder on how this all works — six group winners make the quarterfinals and two wild-card teams will reach that round as well. Those will be the two best second-place finishers, which probably means teams with 3-1 records and strong point differentials.

The quarterfinals are Dec. 4 and Dec. 5. The Final Four in Las Vegas has semifinals on Dec. 7 and the championship game — with $500,000 per player at stake, along with the NBA Cup — is Dec. 9.

Utah Jazz in group play

West Group A standings: Los Angeles Lakers 3-0, Utah 2-1, Phoenix 1-1, Portland 1-2, Memphis 0-3.

Tuesday games: Utah at L.A. Lakers, Portland at Phoenix.

Friday game: Phoenix at Memphis.

Nov. 28 games: None.

Outlook: Lakers-Jazz could decide the group; L.A. grabs a quarterfinal berth with a win. A Utah win creates a real chance of three teams finishing 3-1; the Lakers and Jazz would both have that record and Phoenix still can get there, and at least one of those teams wouldn’t move on in that scenario. Portland is still only alive mathematically, and Memphis is out.