Are we having fun yet?
Night 3 of the NBA’s first In-Season Tournament (IST) featured 10 games, five of which went down to the wire and one of which featured a fight before either team scored a basket. A couple of blowouts took the steam out of a few highly anticipated matchups, particularly the Chet Holmgren vs. Victor Wembanyama showdown in Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Lakers–Memphis Grizzlies playoff rematch, but the simultaneous last-minute endings in Denver and Golden State were a fitting coda to the evening.
Now that it’s over, as the leading enthusiast regarding the tournament, I’ve taken up the mantle of breaking down the night’s action and explaining where everybody stands.
When the dust settled, we had a little bit more clarity heading into Friday’s huge slate, with 11 games that include several must-win scenarios, given that any record with more than one loss in the four-game group stage means almost certain elimination.
Finally, kudos to the Grizzlies, who dropped to 0-3 and became the first team to be mathematically eliminated from the IST.
Where teams stand
As a reminder, teams are divided into six groups of five, with three groups each in conference (you can find full rules, including tiebreakers and more, here). Each team plays the others in its group once, for a total of four games in pool play; the six group winners and one wild card from each conference will advance to the quarterfinals in early December. The IST culminates in a semifinals and final on Dec. 7 and 9 in Las Vegas.
Before we get into the individual groups, here’s the shorthand on where everyone stands. Basically, it would be virtually impossible for a team to finish 2-2 in pool play and still make the final eight; it can only happen if all five teams in a group finish 2-2, or if somewhere between six and 12 teams tie at 2-2 for the one wild-card spot in a conference. Realistically, a team has to finish 3-1 or 4-0 to have any chance of advancing. By my count, that leaves 23 teams with a realistic hope of getting to Vegas:
Mathematically eliminated (three losses): Memphis
Only alive in theory (two losses): Oklahoma City, Dallas, LA Clippers, Detroit, San Antonio, Washington
Must win out (one loss): Brooklyn, Chicago, Orlando, New York, Charlotte, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Golden State, New Orleans, Portland, Phoenix
Clean sheet (zero losses): Boston, Miami, Milwaukee, Atlanta, Indiana, Minnesota, Sacramento, Denver, Houston, Utah, L.A. Lakers
Tournament? What tournament? (no games played yet): Toronto
How the groups look
Before we begin, a suggestion for the NBA: Call the groups in the West Groups D, E and F next year. That’s a lot less cumbersome than having to delineate “West Group A” and “East Group A” every time we talk about this thing. Now, on to the nitty-gritty.
East Group A: In the East’s toughest group, Indiana upset Philadelphia on Tuesday behind a sublime performance from Tyrese Haliburton and has already beaten Cleveland. Thus, the Pacers will win the group if they beat the Hawks on Nov. 21 in Atlanta. If not, things could get gnarly, as it would open the door for any of Philly, Cleveland or Atlanta to grab the group. Only Detroit is out; on Friday, Philly visits Atlanta in a must-win for the Sixers, while Detroit visits Cleveland in a must-win for the Cavs.
East Group B: Miami won a battle of unbeatens Tuesday in Charlotte, so the Heat and Milwaukee now are the two undefeated teams atop the group. New York and Charlotte have one loss each and must win out from here. A Bucks-Heat showdown wouldn’t happen until the final IST game night, Nov. 28 in Miami; Friday’s entertainment is a Knicks-Wizards pairing that is a must-win for New York and a Bucks-Hornets affair that Charlotte needs to win to stay alive.
East Group C: Brooklyn is the only team in the East to have played three times; the Nets beat Orlando on Tuesday by 20 to improve to 2-1 in pool play, and if the Nets beat the Raptors by a healthy margin in their final game on Nov. 28, they have a decent chance of being the East’s wild-card entry. (An amusing sidelight to the fourth quarter in Brooklyn was the Nets seeming to realize in real time that they needed to run up the score in garbage time; point differential will be the key tiebreaker among teams that finish 3-1 and are in the running for that wild-card spot.)
That Brooklyn discussion assumes Boston (1-0) wins the group, but the Celtics still must visit Toronto on Friday. Speaking of which … welcome to the IST, Canada! The Raptors are the only team that has yet to play a tournament game but will have one on each of the four remaining IST nights.
West Group A: The Lakers are atop the group with two wins and a plus-30 scoring margin, the best of any team in the tournament. That nudges them just past …. Utah? Yes, Utah. The Jazz also are 2-0, and their plus-23 margin is the second best of any club. The Lakers and Utah meet in L.A. next Tuesday; if each team wins on Friday (the Lakers visit Portland while the Jazz host Phoenix), that contest would be for the group title. It should be noted that even with one more win, either of these teams would be a good candidate for the West’s wild-card spot given their strong point differential thus far.
West Group B: The Pelicans blew out the Mavericks on Tuesday in what was effectively an elimination match, but New Orleans still has to beat mighty Denver on Friday to have any realistic hope of advancing. The Nuggets sit atop the group at 2-0 after holding off a late Clippers rally on Tuesday, but they aren’t the only unbeaten. Houston is 1-0 and already owns a win over Denver this year, although it wasn’t an IST game; the Nuggets will get another shot Nov. 24 in Houston. The strength of this group — the proverbial “Group of Death” — could work against the team that finishes second, as they are unlikely to match the point differential of the second-place team in Group A.
West Group C: Break up the Timberwolves! Resurgent Minnesota held off Golden State on Tuesday in a wild affair, and the Wolves will be the group winners if they win a home game Nov. 24 against Sacramento. However, the Kings also are unbeaten, and if they prevail in Minnesota, it could set up a spicy finale to the IST: Golden State vs. Sacramento in the last game of the night, with a potential wild-card spot or group title on the line.
Friday’s big games
As noted above, the In-Season Tournament returns Friday with 11 more games. To help you prioritize, here is a brief rundown, with pool play records:
High importance: Denver (2-0) at New Orleans (1-1); Boston (1-0) at Toronto (0-0); Philadelphia (1-1) at Atlanta (1-0); L.A. Lakers (2-0) at Portland (1-1).
Some importance: Phoenix (0-1) at Utah (2-0); Milwaukee (1-0) at Charlotte (1-1); Sacramento (1-0) at San Antonio (0-2); Houston (1-0) at LA Clippers (0-2).
Rearrange your sock drawer: Orlando (0-1) at Chicago (0-1); New York (0-1) at Washington (0-2); Detroit (0-2) at Cleveland (0-1)
(Photo of Lakers-Grizzlies: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)