NBA in-season tournament: Everything you need to know about the semifinals

The eyes of the NBA world have shifted to Las Vegas, where Adam Silver’s great experiment in boosting engagement now barrels toward its grand finale. Welcome to the Final Four no-trademark-infringement semifinals of the inaugural NBA in-season tournament. Come and pull up a chair; Imperioli’s telling everybody stories about the “Pine Barrens” shoot. It’s a great time.

Two teams from each conference — the Los Angeles Lakers and New Orleans Pelicans from the West, the Milwaukee Bucks and Indiana Pacers from the East — will square off in a Thursday doubleheader to determine which squads will have the chance to compete for the NBA Cup (not to mention those sweet medals that come with it).

Let’s set the table for the IST’s thrilling conclusion by revisiting how we got here and taking a look at some things to keep an eye on in each of our two semifinal tilts:

Where we left off

In the East:

After sweeping through Group A, the Pacers bounced back from a shaky first half on Monday by riding its league-leading offense to 74 points after intermission, outlasting the visiting (and Kristaps Porzingis-less) Boston Celtics for a 122-112 win. As he has all season for the Pacers, Tyrese Haliburton led the way: The All-Star point guard scored or assisted on 44 or those 74 second-half points — and created even more with his traffic-directing and off-ball gravity — en route to the first triple-double of his career. Not bad for a dude playing in his first game on TNT.

The other Eastern quarterfinal saw its fair share of offensive fireworks, too, with a pair of heavyweight tag teams — Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard of the Bucks, Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle of the New York Knicks — trading haymakers to the tune of 147 first-half points. But while the Knicks coughed and sputtered in the second half, the Bucks kept the pedal mashed to the floorboards, leaving New York in the dust in a 146-122 final that marked the most potent half-court offensive performance of the Giannis-and-Dame partnership.

And in the West:

The Pelicans went on the road, withstood a hellacious opening flurry from the Sacramento Kings — 32 points on 12-for-14 shooting in the first seven and a half minutes! — and grinded their way back into the proceedings behind a shift to small-ball (turns out when you’ve got healthy wings, you can play Zion Williamson at center!) and hellacious perimeter defense (12 steals, 21 deflections). A heaping helping of Brandon Ingram helped, too: The sinewy swingman finished with 30 points, eight rebounds and six assists in 40 minutes, keeping the Kings at arm’s reach with his scoring and playmaking, and helping New Orleans advance in a 127-117 win.

Waiting for Ingram in the semis? The franchise that traded him to New Orleans back in 2019 in the blockbuster that made Anthony Davis a Laker, gave LeBron James his running buddy and set L.A. on the path to the 2020 NBA bubble title. (Let it never be said that the NBA’s scriptwriters lack an appreciation for a good story arc.)

The Lakers survived Kevin Durant (31 points on 12-for-17 shooting) to punch their tickets with a 106-103 victory, thanks partly to a benefit-of-the-doubt timeout call and a timely triple from Austin Reaves. Mostly, though, the purple-and-gold are headed to Vegas because LeBron, three weeks from his 39th birthday, remains absolutely preposterous:

“I continue to define how I continue to have this battle with Father Time that, for so long, everybody said has been undefeated,” James told reporters after putting up 31 points, 11 assists, eight rebounds and five steals in 40 minutes of remarkable work. “I’m trying to give him one loss.”

And, in the process, give the Lakers yet another trophy to add to the franchise’s overstuffed case.

What to know about the semifinal matchups

East No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks vs. East No. 2 Indiana Pacers, 5 p.m. ET Thursday (ESPN)

When the top two offenses in the in-season tournament square off, the biggest question might be: Who’s the first to 20 3-pointers?

NBA teams have topped 20 triples 28 times so far this season. Nine of those belong to Indiana (five) and Milwaukee (four) — two attacks predicated on spreading the floor, collapsing the defense, then spraying the ball to open shooters who let it fly; 3-point attempts account for 38.9% of all field goal attempts for both the Pacers and Bucks, tied for eighth-most in the NBA, according to Cleaning the Glass. The swing factor, then, could be which team is most effective at preventing the other from launching at their preferred volume.

After a rocky first few games in which new head coach Adrian Griffin toggled through different and more aggressive coverages, much to the consternation of the players who’d been a reliably elite defense under Mike Budenholzer’s conservative schemes, Milwaukee has made strides in that department over the last month, ranking 12th in points allowed per possession and 10th in the share of their opponents’ shots that come from beyond the arc. Somewhat paradoxically, though, this is one area — likely the only area — in which a Pacers defense that’s been the NBA’s second-worst this season might have the Bucks beat.

Yes, Indiana allows a ton of shots at the rim and a ton of points per shot attempt because it lacks positional length and high-quality stoppers at the point of attack. (Go up and down the Pacers roster, and you’re going to find a ton of dudes between 6-foot-4 and 6-6 with sub-7-foot wingspans — the kind of guys that often just don’t have the goods to consistently bother top scorers.) But that defensive shot diet is also the residue of design. Head coach Rick Carlisle has intentionally ratcheted down the help defense in favor of defending the pick-and-roll with two defenders as much as possible, insisting that the Pacers guard their individual matchups with the goal of avoiding the kind of over-help that puts a defense in rotation and leaves it vulnerable to swing-swing sequences that produce wide-open long-range looks. On that score, at least, so far, so good: Barely a quarter of opponents’ shots against Indiana come from beyond the arc, by far the lowest share in the league.

For most teams, giving up a crazy amount of shots at the rim would be a recipe for repeated defeat. (Especially against the guy who leads the league in points per game in the paint.) When you’ve got an offense as overwhelming as the attack led by Haliburton, Buddy Hield, Myles Turner and the rest of the go-go Pacers, though, maybe trading 2s for the 3s you know you can generate is just crazy enough to work. It did against Milwaukee on Nov. 9 — a game that saw Giannis explode for a season-high 54, but that the Pacers still won, thanks partly to taking 21 more 3s than the Bucks and making 11 more.

One important caveat there, though, comes in the form of who didn’t suit up for that affair: Lillard, who has shrugged off a sluggish start to his tenure in Milwaukee to average 26.8 points and 8.1 assists per game on 48/42/90 shooting splits over his last 10 games. You’d expect Indiana to have a bit more trouble keeping the Bucks from getting what they want offensively with him at the controls; this suggests we might have a shootout on our hands. Something tells me, though, that Haliburton and Co. are just fine with that.

West No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. West No. 3 New Orleans Pelicans, 9 p.m. ET Thursday (TNT/truTV)

Now that his roster’s finally got a clean bill of health — well, close to it, anyway; get well soon, Larry Nance Jr. — it’ll be interesting to see how New Orleans head coach Willie Green handles his lineups and rotations against L.A.

The Pelicans need to get more shooting and playmaking on the floor to loosen up an AD-led Lakers defense that ranks sixth in half-court defense and decongest the paint to give Zion (second in the NBA in points per game in the lane, behind only Giannis) a runway to wreak havoc on the interior. Enter C.J. McCollum, just back from a collapsed lung, or rookie Jordan Hawkins, shooting 37.3% from deep on an anything-but-bashful 9.2 attempts per 37 minutes of floor time. Run too long with lineups featuring too many of McCollum, Hawkins, Williamson and Jonas Valanciunas, though, and you risk giving LeBron too many tantalizing defensive targets to hunt. And you don’t really want to make life too much easier on a Laker offense that’s been middling in the half-court.

The Pels’ most versatile mix might be the one that closed out Sacramento: Ingram, All-Defensive-caliber stopper Herb Jones (quietly shooting 35.8% from 3 and averaging 4.5 assists per-36 this season, so ignore him at your own peril) and huge two-way wing Trey Murphy III, with point-of-attack menace Jose Alvarado up top and Valanciunas unfurling that 7-foot-6 wingspan in drop coverage as the backstop. But how much does it make sense for New Orleans to minimize Williamson against a Lakers team that looks to dominate the front of the rim on both ends of the court? In what promises to be a physical struggle, you should probably use the Juggernaut as much as possible, right?

Hey, speaking of large and powerful superhumans that you should not, under any circumstances, allow to build up a head of steam:

New Orleans generally does a good job of keeping opponents away from the rim; only five teams allow shots at the cup less frequently. That’s tougher to do when your defense isn’t set, though, and one of the drawbacks of prioritizing offensive rebounding like the Pels do is that it can leave you susceptible to counterattacks on the break — they’re 19th in transition frequency allowed and 23rd in points allowed per play in transition, according to Cleaning the Glass. On the flip side, the Lakers spend more time getting out on the break than anybody but the Hawks and rank eighth in points per transition play, led by — who else? — James, who’s No. 1 in the NBA in fast-break points, who’s shooting 71% percent in transition and who is still, at age 38, one hell of a tough guy to deal with in the open court.

If the Pelicans can build enough of a wall to force LeBron to pull the ball out, reset the offense and force him to either redirect touches elsewhere or settle for jumpers, their chances of knocking off the favored Lakers improve. The bad news? People have been trying to keep that dude out of the paint for literally 20 years, and they ain’t done it yet.

What comes next?

The winners of Thursday’s single-elimination semifinal games will advance to the in-season tournament’s championship game, which will tip off at 8:30 p.m. ET on Saturday night, airing on ABC and ESPN2. That championship game will be the only one in the entire tournament that won’t also count toward participants’ regular-season record and statistics. For those two teams, it will count as Game 83.

Win on Saturday night, and you take home the whole showcase — the inaugural NBA Cup and the bragging rights that go with being the first to hoist it; those sweet, sweet medals; and a $500,000 winner’s purse for each player that ought to come in handy this holiday shopping season.