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NBA in-season tournament is already looking like a big win for the league

The NBA in-season tournament is already electric, and it’s just getting started

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Atlanta Hawks Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

It was only natural for there to be skepticism when the NBA finally implemented its long-rumored in-season tournament this season. The format was a bit convoluted by necessity: average regular season games would turn into tournament nights for group play on Tuesdays and Fridays, and a bracket wasn’t involved until the field was trimmed to eight teams. Beyond its configuration, the more difficult task for the NBA was figuring out how to make fans care about a new trophy in a league where “rings culture” reigns supreme.

“Everybody’s not going to buy in right away,” Joe Dumars, the NBA’s executive vice president of basketball operations, said when the tournament was revealed back in July. “That can’t be the goal, that everybody’s going to buy in from Day 1. These things take time. And I think as time goes on you can build this up and people can really get into it.”

The in-season tournament is still in the group play stages of its inaugural year, but it already feels like a big success. The games on Tuesday night, played on those custom courts that everyone has an opinion on, were a great example of why that’s the case.

The Indiana Pacers beat the Atlanta Hawks, 157-152, in one of the most high-octane games you will ever see. There had only been eight other games in NBA history where both teams had scored like this, and it’s no surprise the Pacers were involved after posting what would be the highest offensive efficiency rating in league history to start the season.

Tyrese Haliburton is blossoming into a superstar for the Pacers, and this was his Mona Lisa: 37 points, 16 rebounds, and 9-of-15 shooting from three-point range. The numbers are great, but the highlights are even better.

Haliburton was just incredible in the third quarter in particular, but credit the Hawks for not going away. Trae Young had 38 points and eight assists, Dejounte Murray had 28 points and five assists, and Bogdan Bogdanovic came off the bench to score 26 points.

Both of these teams shot better than 48 percent (!) from three-point range. If there’s a more entertaining game all year before the playoffs start, I’d be impressed.

While it was happening, the Philadelphia 76ers and Cleveland Cavaliers were also engaged in a great game. The Cavs beat the Sixers, 122-119, in overtime to eliminate Philly from the in-season tournament. This game had it all: Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey each popping off for 30+ points, Darius Garland spectacularly running the offense without Donovan Mitchell in the lineup, and even undrafted rookie Craig Porter Jr. coming off the bench to give Cleveland a lift.

After Tuesday night’s action, the consensus from NBA fans was obvious: the in-season tournament is good, and has helped produce more engaging games.

I’ll admit I’m a little bit skeptical of the idea that players are playing harder in games that count for the in-season tournament. Yes, the NBA’s 82-game regular season is a slog, but that typically isn’t the case in Nov. At this stage in the calendar, teams are still trying to figure out their identity and prove how good they are. Have we considered that the NBA regular season is good and often overlooked, and that these group play games are just an extension of that?

Well, Knicks guard Quentin Grimes essentially disproved my point ahead of Friday’s group play matchup with the Heat.

The in-season tournament is a success because it’s engaging fans. It’s really that simple.

Check out the standings for the in-season tournament here.

The NBA has been lucky to have some really great games like Hawks-Pacers happen on tournament nights. Maybe there really is something to the intensity being raised for these games. If nothing else, the Pacers can always say they were the first team ever to win their group in the in-season tournament.

The real upside for the in-season tournament always rested in its second phase, when the bracket was populated and teams moved onto knockout play. That’s still ahead of us in Dec., and it should be captivating, especially when the final four teams go onto Las Vegas.

The NBA deserves a lot of credit for trying something new in a day and age when most people just want to latch onto their old comforts. The in-season tournament has gotten fans excited and put extra stakes in the Nov. games. That’s really all you can ask for.