Throughout the past month, the Milwaukee Bucks have gradually warmed to the newly created In-Season Tournament, learning more about it and becoming more invested as the concept became more defined. The playing surfaces and uniforms were different, and the idea of spending four December days in Las Vegas was certainly an appeal.
For general manager Jon Horst and head coach Adrian Griffin, the concept was simple.
“We’re all in this business because we want to compete,” Horst said in the summer after the tournament was created by NBA commissioner Adam Silver. “I actually subscribe to the fact that no matter what the trophy is, someone wants to win it – so let’s go for it and try and win a trophy.”
And while the atmosphere or fan engagement surrounding the early games of group play could be debated, the team did take the contests seriously. Griffin and the performance staff had Khris Middleton start the Nov. 17 group play game in Charlotte – the first game of a back-to-back – after Middleton had sat out the first games in two previous back-to-backs. Then the starters remained in the game late as the point differential tie-breaker became a thought.
Bucks forward Bobby Portis likened it to his Team USA experience in the summer when point differential in FIBA group play mattered as much as the victory. The Knicks, for example, got into the quarterfinals thanks to having a better margin of victory than Miami.
“Seeing guys going in the end of the game and messing up all type of spreads, whatever it is people got going on,” Bobby Portis said with a chuckle. “It was definitely crazy.”
Bucks have eye on NBA Cup
And after clinching their group to advance to Tuesday night’s quarterfinal “knockout” game against New York at Fiserv Forum, Middleton acknowledged that, "It would be pretty cool to be part of history. You always want to be the first to win something. So, it would definitely be cool to win the first In-Season Tournament.”
The Bucks are one of four organizations in the quarterfinals that have won NBA championships, but the other four have not. Phoenix and Indiana have lost in the NBA Finals and Sacramento and New Orleans have never reached that level.
“I think that would be an honor as well, to be the first team to win it,” Portis said.
But in order to put new hardware in the Fiserv Forum trophy room, the Bucks must outlast the Knicks on Tuesday. New York has won three straight and four of its last five. The Bucks beat the Knicks by five points on Nov. 3 in the first game of group play.
Giannis Antetokounmpo stopped himself after initially calling it a “big game” but added he wanted the Bucks to have a chance to win a trophy. Malik Beasley called it a playoff game and was already thinking of how to get his rest following the Bucks’ victory over Atlanta on Saturday night. The team had off Sunday and practiced on Monday.
“We’ve taken more pride in it each game,” Bucks guard Damian Lillard said. “We put ourselves in great position in winning all four of our games and now we’re hosting the first one against a team that we beat in the (group play). I thought we played a pretty solid game against them and we’re improving. One game and then we off to Vegas. Everybody in this room want to be in Vegas. For a lot of reasons.”
In-Season Tournament money matters
Players around the league have done a good job of walking the line of acknowledging how the pool play games added importance to regular season games and winning a new championship while also acknowledging the allure of the $500,000 cash prize to each of the players on the winning team.
And it is no small thing.
While that sum makes up 1% of Antetokounmpo and Lillard’s salary for the season, it’s 44% of rookies Andre Jackson Jr.’s and Chris Livingston’s. The rest of the Bucks’ guaranteed contracts fall in-between.
“I’m sure the richest guy in the world would be happy to get $500,000,” Khris Middleton said. “We’re all excited about that opportunity to get some extra cash.”
Two-way players Lindell Wigginton, TyTy Washington Jr. and Marques Bolden will also get a bump. The trio make roughly $559,000 for their services, which are split between the Bucks and their G League affiliate, the Wisconsin Herd.
Should the Bucks win the inaugural NBA Cup, those players will make an additional $250,000 – or close to 45% more.
It’s a significant percentage of salary that can be gained and is something Bucks leaders like Lillard have been aware of since the beginning of group play and have said that’s a factor in their thinking.
“I think it’s a situation where it’s a tournament – you want to win that, first of all," Lillard said. "But for us in our position guys like myself and Giannis, Khris, Brook as well, we’ve made a lot of money. But I think as a leader and as somebody who cares about your teammates, especially your younger teammates, you’ve got guys on two-way contracts, guys who are trying to earn their stay (in the league). That prize in the end, it could change their family’s lives.
"You don’t want to make everything about money but that’s something that we can do for people around us. Our coaches, they get a percentage of the same thing. It gives you something to get up for and be excited about even if it’s not for you individually. It’s something that you can do for the next person and I think that’s worth us battling it out for.”
What is the In-Season Tournament?
Modeled after various European soccer "cups," the NBA introduced round-robin group play featuring all 30 teams to help make regular-season games more important to players and fans.
Each game counts toward the regular season standings. The two finalists will end up playing 83 regular season games – and that 83rd game will not count toward the regular season standings.
The eight teams that won their groups advanced to single-elimination games, which are the quarterfinals, semifinals and final. The semifinals (Dec. 7) and final (Dec. 9) will be held in Las Vegas.
Along with claiming the NBA Cup, each player on the winning team gets a lump sum of $500,000. Players on the second-place team receive $200,000 apiece. Semifinalist players get $100,000, while quarterfinalists get $50,000. Coaches will receive the same.
How did the Bucks advance to the quarterfinal?
Milwaukee won its group, called East Group B.
Nov. 3: Beat the Knicks, 110-105
Nov. 17: Beat the Hornets, 130-99
Nov. 24: Beat the Wizards, 131-128
Nov. 28: Beat the Heat 131-124
What is the In-Season Tournament schedule?
Boston (15-4) at Indiana (10-8), 6:30 p.m., TNT
New Orleans (11-10) at Sacramento (11-7), 9 p.m., TNT
Phoenix (12-9) at Los Angeles Lakers (12-9), 9 p.m., TNT
New York (12-7) at Milwaukee (14-6), 6:30 p.m., TNT
What are the scenarios for the Bucks?
Beat the Knicks: The Bucks head to Las Vegas for the semifinal vs. Pacers/Celtics on Thursday.
Lose to the Knicks + Pacers loss: Bucks host Pacers on Friday.
Lose to the Knicks + Celtics loss: Bucks travel to Celtics on Friday.
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Milwaukee Bucks out to win first NBA In-Season Tournament; Knicks next