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NBA in-season tournament: Everything you need to know as the knockout round takes shape

The NBA’s inaugural in-season tournament resumes Tuesday, with six of the eight spots in the knockout round — three in each conference — still up for grabs on the seventh and final night of group-stage play.

Here's a look at what’s at stake in Tuesday’s eight-game in-season tournament slate, as well as the lay of the land in each of the six groups as the race for the NBA Cup begins to heat up:

Gone till (next) November

After a mammoth Black Friday slate, we’re now up to 12 teams eliminated.

In the East, we’ve bid farewell to the Pistons, Wizards, Raptors and Bulls — the latter two of whom found themselves embroiled in a bit of a kerfuffle over late-game bucket-getting, as Toronto tried to inflate its point differential … despite already having been eliminated:

Oh, well. More passion and more points are better than less, I suppose, even if neither ends up amounting to much.

In the West, it’s au revoir to Victor Wembanyama’s Spurs, as well as the Jazz, Trail Blazers, Grizzlies, Nuggets, Mavericks, Clippers and Thunder, who have what would be the third-best point differential in the East, but who, thanks to losses to Golden State and Sacramento, find themselves on the outside looking in. All the more motivation for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Chet Holmgren and the rest of 11-5 Oklahoma City to redouble their efforts to play for an even bigger gold trophy in about six months.

Who’s in

There are still only two teams that have punched their tickets to the knockouts: The Lakers and Pacers, who each went 4-0 in their conference’s Group A.

With 12 teams out and two teams in, that leaves … carry the one … 16 teams vying for six knockout slots. Some of them have a much better chance than others. To wit:

Who’s still got a shot

EAST GROUP B: Three teams alive

  • The Bucks can clinch by beating the Heat in the first half of TNT’s Tuesday doubleheader. Milwaukee can also take it with a loss if the Knicks beat the Hornets, so long as they wind up with a better overall point differential than New York (whom the Bucks beat head-to-head) and Miami (whom the Knicks beat head-to-head).

  • The Heat have to beat the Bucks to win the group. If they do, they can take it if the Hornets beat the Knicks or if they finish with a better point differential than both 3-1 Milwaukee and 3-1 New York.

  • The Knicks need to beat the Hornets and need the Heat to beat the Bucks and need to wind up with the point-differential tiebreaker over both 3-1 Milwaukee and 3-1 Miami. Basically: They have to blow Charlotte out to have any chance.

EAST GROUP C: Three teams alive

  • The Magic enter Tuesday leading Group C at 3-1 after beating the Celtics on Friday. They clinch if the Nets lose to the Raptors. Even if Brooklyn wins, though, Orlando can also clinch if the Celtics beat the spiraling Bulls … provided neither Brooklyn nor Boston wins by enough to finish with a higher point differential than Orlando’s +22.

  • Even after losing to Orlando on Friday, the Celtics can still clinch Group C. It’ll require beating Chicago, the Nets knocking off the Raptors and finishing with the best point differential of the 3-1 teams.

  • Similarly, the Nets have two paths to swooping in and clinching Group C: a win over Toronto combined with Chicago upsetting Boston or beating the Raptors by enough to win that point-differential tiebreaker over the C’s and Magic.

WEST GROUP B: Two teams alive

This one, blessedly, is pretty clean:

  • The Rockets clinch with a win over the Mavericks.

  • If Houston loses, the Pelicans win the group.

WEST GROUP C: Three teams alive

  • If the Kings beat the Warriors in TNT’s national nightcap, they clinch Group C. Even if Sacramento loses, though, it can win the group; it’d just take a Timberwolves victory over the Thunder, and Sacramento finishing with a better point differential than the 3-1 Warriors or 3-1 Wolves.

  • The Timberwolves can win the group if they beat Oklahoma City, Golden State beats Sacramento and they finish with the best point differential of the 3-1 teams.

  • The Warriors have to beat Sacramento to have a chance to take Group C. If they do, they can finish atop the group if either the Wolves lose to OKC or (say it with me) they finish with the best point differential of the 3-1 teams.

Phoenix Suns forward Kevin Durant (35) drives as Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson (11) defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2023, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

So, what about the wild cards?

As a reminder, there’ll be one “wild card” in both the East and the West — the team with the best record among those that finished second in their groups. Entering Tuesday, that’d be the Knicks and the Suns; exiting Tuesday, according to the NBA, it could be any of 10 teams in the East and three in the West.

Here, in alphabetical order, is what it would take to get each of them there:

[deep inhale]

EAST

  • Atlanta Hawks (one pathway): Win over the Cavaliers while Knicks, Heat, Celtics and Nets all lose and Hawks finish second in Group A, winning tiebreakers over all other second-place teams.

  • Boston Celtics (three pathways): Win over the Bulls while Nets, Knicks, Heat, Cavaliers all lose; win over the Bulls and finish second in Group B while winning tiebreaker over all other second-place teams; lose to Bulls but Cavs, Knicks, Heat and Nets all lose and Celtics win tiebreaker over all other second-place teams.

  • Brooklyn Nets (two pathways): Win over Raptors and finish second in Group C while Cavaliers, Knicks and Heat all lose; win over Raptors and win tiebreaker over all other second-place teams.

  • Charlotte Hornets (one pathway): Win over Knicks while Cavaliers, Heat, Celtics and Nets all lose and Hornets finish second in Group C while winning tiebreaker over all other second-place teams.

  • Cleveland Cavaliers (two pathways): Win over Hawks while Knicks, Heat, Celtics and Nets all lose; win over Hawks, finish second in Group A while winning tiebreaker over all other second-place teams.

  • Miami Heat (three pathways): Win over Bucks while Cavaliers, Celtics and Nets all lose; win over Bucks, finish second in Group B while winning tiebreaker over all other second-place teams; lose to Bucks but Cavs, Knicks, Celtics and Nets also all lose, and Heat finish second in Group B while winning tiebreaker over all other second-place teams.

  • Milwaukee Bucks (two pathways): Knicks, Cavaliers, Celtics and Nets all lose; finish second in Group B and win tiebreaker over all other second-place teams.

  • New York Knicks (three pathways): Win over the Hornets while Heat, Cavaliers, Celtics and Nets all lose; win over Hornets, finish second in Group B while winning tiebreaker over all other second-place teams; lose to Hornets but Heat, Cavs, Celtics and Nets also all lose, and Knicks finish second in Group B while winning tiebreaker over all other second-place teams.

  • Orlando Magic (two pathways): Celtics, Cavaliers, Knicks and Heat all lose; Magic finish second in Group C while winning tiebreaker over all other second-place teams.

  • Philadelphia 76ers (one pathway): Cavaliers, Knicks, Heat, Celtics and Nets all lose and Sixers finish second in Group A while winning tiebreaker over all other second-place teams.

WEST

  • Golden State Warriors (one pathway): Win over Kings, finish second in Group C and win tiebreaker over all other second-place teams.

  • Minnesota Timberwolves (one pathway): Win over Thunder, finish second in Group C and win tiebreaker over all other second-place teams.

  • Phoenix Suns (two pathways): Timberwolves lose to OKC; Suns finish second in Group A and win tiebreaker over all other second-place teams.

[extended, cleansing exhale]

tl;dr?

Even if they lose to Miami, the Bucks would probably be in good shape for the East’s wild card, thanks to their +39 scoring margin through three games; they’d just need to avoid a lopsided defeat.

Similarly, the Suns look like the West’s wild-card favorite, by virtue of their +34 point differential. That’s one higher than New Orleans at +33 … which, as noted above, means the Pelicans’ tourney fate rests on the outcome of Rockets-Mavericks. If Dallas wins, the Pels advance; if Houston wins, the Pels watch the knockout stages on TV, like the rest of us.

What to know about Tuesday’s in-season tournament games

East, Group B

4. Charlotte Hornets at 2. New York Knicks, 7:30 p.m. ET (League Pass)

The Hornets are once again struggling to get stops, sitting 28th in defensive efficiency after losing five of their last seven. Making matters worse, star point guard LaMelo Ball — who had averaged 33.8 points and 9.2 assists per game over his previous five outings — needed to be helped off the floor following a nasty right ankle strain during Sunday’s loss in Orlando:

If Ball can’t go at Madison Square Garden, Charlotte’s offense could be in trouble against New York’s No. 7 defense … which would be good news for a Knicks team that’s already handled the Hornets twice this month, and that needs to roll up another big margin of victory to improve its chances of advancing to the knockout round.

East, Group B

1. Milwaukee Bucks at 3. Miami Heat, 7:30 p.m. ET (TNT)

After a somewhat rocky start to the season, the Bucks have won seven of eight, with the lone loss coming by three points on the road in Boston to the only team that has more wins than they do. The good news? With Damian Lillard warming up (28.9 points and eight assists per game on 45/39/91 shooting over the last seven games), Milwaukee’s offense has started to take flight, ranking third in the NBA in half-court scoring efficiency. The bad news? The defense remains, shall we say, a work in progress, with new head coach Adrian Griffin’s early-season schematic experimentation producing a bottom-10 unit.

With Tyler Herro still sidelined and Jimmy Butler nursing an ankle injury of his own, Miami’s best chance of both cooling down Milwaukee’s offense and puncturing its defense might be a heavy dose of Bam Adebayo. The two-time All-Star, who missed the Heat’s Oct. 30 loss to the Bucks, is off to the best start of his career, averaging 22.7 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.4 steals and one block per game. The list of players with usage and assist rates as high as Adebayo’s, who are also scoring as efficiently as he has, looks an awful lot like an All-NBA ballot … which, if he keeps this up, might be where he’s headed come season’s end.

East, Group A

4. Atlanta Hawks at 2. Cleveland Cavaliers, 7:30 p.m. ET (League Pass)

The up-and-down Hawks suffered a significant blow when forward Jalen Johnson fractured his left wrist following a collision with Kyle Kuzma during Atlanta’s win over the Wizards on Saturday. The injury interrupts what was looking like a breakout campaign for the 21-year-old, who had been averaging 14.1 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game, shooting 66% from 2-point range and 42.5% from beyond the arc. Among third-year players, only Toronto’s Scottie Barnes and Rockets center Alperen Şengün had a higher value over replacement player than Johnson prior to his injury; his absence figures to make life tougher on a Hawks defense that has conceded 6.9 more points per 100 possessions without him.

If you’re having a hard time getting a handle on Cleveland, you’re not alone. Thanks to an array of injuries, the Cavs haven’t really had much of a chance to see precisely what they’re working with; their opening-night starting five of Donovan Mitchell, Darius Garland, Evan Mobley, Jarrett Allen and new arrival Max Strus has played just 84 minutes across seven games. One bright spot amid all the injuries: Craig Porter Jr., an undrafted rookie point guard out of Wichita State, has averaged 14.4 points and 4.8 assists in 24 minutes per game over his last five outings. The Cavs will ultimately go as Mitchell and Garland take them, but with Ricky Rubio away from the team, Ty Jerome out and both star guards missing time, J.B. Bickerstaff and Co. will take silver linings wherever they can find them — especially when they come in the form of an unexpected, much-needed jolt off the bench.

East, Group C

4. Toronto Raptors at 3. Brooklyn Nets, 7:30 p.m. ET (League Pass)

After looking like he was taking a backseat to the ascendant Barnes to start the season, Pascal Siakam has looked more like his old self of late, averaging 23.2 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists on 53.8% shooting over the last 10 games. He’s finishing inside and getting to the foul line efficiently enough to provide above-league-average true shooting on star-level usage, even with his 3-point shot still missing in action. There’s still an All-Star, fringe-All-NBA-level player in there; what Masai Ujiri and the Raptors front office intend to do with that player, however, remains one of the league’s biggest questions.

Another one of the league’s biggest questions: How the hell do the Nets have a top-10 offense? Brooklyn enters Tuesday ranked eighth in points scored per possession outside of garbage time, according to Cleaning the Glass, despite several key figures (Nic Claxton, Ben Simmons, Cameron Johnson, early-season surprise Cam Thomas) missing significant time. The equalizer, as is so often the case these days, has been the long ball: Only five teams attempt more 3-pointers per game, only two make more and only three hit a higher percentage than the Nets, who boast seven players averaging at least five 3-point attempts per game. With Thomas, Johnson, Mikal Bridges, Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, Royce O’Neale and potential Sixth Man of the Year candidate Lonnie Walker IV all serious threats to pull up, Brooklyn’s spreading defenses out and slicing them up, keeping a team that’s at a size and top-end talent disadvantage on most nights afloat in the middle of the East.

East, Group C

5. Chicago Bulls at 2. Boston Celtics, 7:30 p.m. ET (League Pass)

ICYMI, here’s how things are going in Chicago right about now:

The Bulls are paying Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vučević a combined $87.2 million this season. When those three former All-Stars have shared the floor, the Bulls have been outscored by 15.8 points-per-100, which is the kind of net rating the league-worst Spurs might put up if everyone had food poisoning.

All of which is to say: It wouldn’t be the biggest shock if the C’s beat them by enough to skate into the knockout stage.

West, Group C

4. Oklahoma City Thunder at 2. Minnesota Timberwolves, 8 p.m. ET (League Pass)

I do not for one second begrudge anyone who has watched Oklahoma City and found themselves focusing on Chet Holmgren; a 7-foot-1 exclamation point with Abe Lincoln’s beard and a Hall of Fame stat line tends to draw the eye. It’s probably worth noting, though, that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander made All-NBA First Team and finished fifth in MVP voting last season … and got better. Like, maybe a lot better:

Heading into this season, only seven players had averaged at least 30 points, five rebounds and five assists per game with a true shooting percentage north of .600: Michael Jordan, James Harden, Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Through 15 games, Gilgeous-Alexander’s at 30.4, 6.1 and 6.2 on .634 true shooting … while also leading the league in steals. Fifth place might be lowest this dude finishes in MVP voting for a while.

Thus far in their sensational start to the season, the Wolves have outscored opponents by 7.7 points per 100 with Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert on the court together; by 11.9 points per 100 when KAT plays without Gobert; and by 6.9 points per 100 when Gobert plays without KAT. Maybe Tim Connelly’s grand-slam swing wasn’t a whiff after all; maybe it was just a year early, and needed one more year of development for Anthony Edwards — currently averaging a shade under 27-6-5.5 on .583 true shooting in his own right — before everything lined up perfectly to produce what looks like the best team the Twin Cities have seen in 20 years.

West, Group B

2. Houston Rockets at 4. Dallas Mavericks, 8:30 p.m. ET (League Pass)

After I wrote about Houston’s major defensive turnaround, it proceeded to go ahead and lose three straight games. (It never fails.) Most of those struggles came on offense, though, and after smothering both the destitute Grizzlies and the still-featuring-Nikola Jokić Nuggets over the weekend, the Rockets — the Houston Rockets! — now own the NBA’s best defense, according to Cleaning the Glass, and make the postseason in more than 90% of Basketball-Reference.com’s simulations. Plenty of folks expected improvement after the arrival of Ime Udoka, Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks. But I’m not sure anybody expected this.

Something a little closer to preseason expectations? A Mavericks team featuring a top-five offense led by Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving, and a bottom-fiveish defense led by … well, nobody, really. Dallas has to win by overwhelming you offensively, and Tim Hardaway Jr. has been brilliant in his role as an unrepentant 3-point hunter — 11.5 triple tries per 36 minutes, by far a career high, more than anybody in the league but Steph. But on the nights he doesn’t have it going, though — like Saturday against the Clippers, when he shot 5-for-14, and the rest of the non-Luka-and-Kyrie Mavericks combined to go 6-for-28 — then the Mavs’ top-heavy structure can topple over, to disastrous effect.

West, Group C

3. Golden State Warriors at 1. Sacramento Kings, 10:30 p.m. ET (TNT)

Hey, Draymond Green’s back! What did he learn from his latest suspension, this time for slapping a rear-naked choke on Rudy Gobert?

… OK!

Maybe one lesson Draymond could collect — one that I’m sure he’s eminently aware of already! — is that the Warriors have been a bottom-10 defense in the games he’s missed, and that it would probably behoove him to do what he can to actually remain on the court. Especially considering his old pal, Domantas Sabonis, has been on one hell of a heater of late: a shade under 23 points on 66.7% shooting to go with 12 rebounds and eight assists per game over the past three weeks. Dealing with Domas and that scorching Sacramento offense demands the best defense the Warriors have to offer — which, in turn, demands that Draymond stay frosty (or, at least, as frosty as he can manage) in his return.

What comes next?

After the final night of group play Tuesday, the top eight teams in the East and West — the winners of Groups A, B and C, plus two “wild cards” (the team from each conference with the best record in group play games that finishes second in its group) — will advance to the single-elimination knockout rounds. The quarterfinal games will be played Monday, Dec. 4, and Tuesday, Dec. 5.

The four winners will advance to Las Vegas, where the semifinals will be held Thursday, Dec. 7. The championship game for the inaugural NBA Cup will take place Saturday, Dec. 9.; it will be the only game 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.

The teams that don’t make it to Las Vegas won’t just sit idly by, either. During the knockout rounds, on the days where no in-season tournament games are scheduled — Wednesday, Dec. 6 and Friday, Dec. 8 — the 22 teams eliminated in the group stage will each play two regular-season games, and the four teams that lose in the quarterfinals will each play a regular-season game on Friday, Dec. 8.

In-season tournament standings

WESTERN CONFERENCE

GROUP A

1. Los Angeles Lakers (4-0, +74 point differential; ADVANCED)
W at Suns, W vs. Grizzlies, W at Trail Blazers, W vs. Jazz

2. Phoenix Suns (3-1, +34)
L vs. Lakers, W at Utah, W vs. Trail Blazers, W at Grizzlies

3. Utah Jazz (2-2, -13; ELIMINATED)
W at Grizzlies, W vs. Trail Blazers, L vs. Suns, L at Lakers

4. Portland Trail Blazers (1-3, -39; ELIMINATED)
W vs. Grizzlies, L at Jazz, L at Lakers, L at Suns

5. Memphis Grizzlies (0-4, -56; ELIMINATED)
L at Trail Blazers, L vs. Jazz, L at Lakers, L vs. Suns


GROUP B

1. New Orleans Pelicans (3-1, +33 point differential)
L at Rockets, W vs. Mavericks, W vs. Nuggets, W at Clippers

2. Houston Rockets (2-1, +16)
W vs. Pelicans, L at Clippers, W vs. Nuggets
REMAINING: at Mavericks, Tuesday, 8:30 p.m. ET

3. Denver Nuggets (2-2, -10; ELIMINATED)
W vs. Mavericks, W vs. Clippers, L at Pelicans, L at Rockets

4. Dallas Mavericks (1-2, -14; ELIMINATED)
L at Nuggets, W vs. Clippers, L at Pelicans
REMAINING: vs. Rockets, Tuesday, 8:30 p.m. ET

5. LA Clippers (1-3, -25; ELIMINATED)
L at Mavericks, L at Nuggets, W vs. Rockets, L vs. Pelicans


GROUP C

1. Sacramento Kings (3-0, +29 point differential)
W vs. Thunder, W at Spurs, W at Timberwolves
REMAINING: vs. Warriors, Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET

2. Minnesota Timberwolves (2-1, -3)
W at Spurs, W at Warriors, L vs. Kings
REMAINING: vs. Thunder, Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET

3. Golden State Warriors (2-1, +5)
W at Thunder, L vs. Timberwolves, W vs. Spurs
REMAINING: at Kings, Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET

4. Oklahoma City Thunder (1-2, +27; ELIMINATED)
L vs. Warriors, L at Kings, W vs. Spurs
REMAINING: at Timberwolves, Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET

5. San Antonio Spurs (0-4, -58; ELIMINATED)
L vs. Timberwolves, L at Thunder, L vs. Kings, L at Warriors

EASTERN CONFERENCE

GROUP A

1. Indiana Pacers (4-0, +39 point differential; ADVANCED)
W vs. Cavaliers, W at 76ers, W at Hawks, W vs. Pistons

2. Cleveland Cavaliers (2-1, +6)
L at Pacers, W vs. Pistons, W at 76ers
REMAINING: vs. Hawks, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. ET

3. Philadelphia 76ers (2-2, +9)
W at Pistons, L vs. Pacers, W at Hawks, L vs. Cavaliers

4. Atlanta Hawks (1-2, -9)
W at Pistons, L vs. 76ers, L vs. Pacers
REMAINING: at Cavaliers, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. ET

5. Detroit Pistons (0-4, -45; ELIMINATED)
L vs. 76ers, L vs. Hawks, L at Cavaliers, L vs. Pacers


GROUP B

1. Milwaukee Bucks (3-0, +39 point differential)
W vs. Knicks, W at Hornets, W vs. Wizards
REMAINING: at Heat, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. ET

2. New York Knicks (2-1, +18)
L at Bucks, W at Wizards, W vs. Heat
REMAINING: vs. Hornets, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. ET

3. Miami Heat (2-1, +11)
W vs. Wizards, W vs. Hornets, L at Knicks
REMAINING: vs. Bucks, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. ET

4. Charlotte Hornets (1-2, -30)
W at Wizards, L vs. Heat, L vs. Bucks
REMAINING: at Knicks, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. ET

5. Washington Wizards (0-4, -38; ELIMINATED)
L at Heat, L vs. Hornets, L vs. Knicks, L at Bucks


GROUP C

1. Orlando Magic (3-1, +22)
L at Nets, W at Bulls, W vs. Raptors, W vs. Celtics

2. Boston Celtics (2-1, 0 point differential)
W vs. Nets, W at Raptors, L at Magic
REMAINING: vs. Bulls, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. ET

3. Brooklyn Nets (2-1, +8)
W at Bulls, L at Celtics, W vs. Magic
REMAINING: vs. Raptors, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. ET

4. Toronto Raptors (1-2, -9; ELIMINATED)
L vs. Celtics, L at Magic, W vs. Bulls
REMAINING: at Nets, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. ET

5. Chicago Bulls (0-3, -21; ELIMINATED)
L vs. Nets, L vs. Magic, L at Raptors
REMAINING: at Celtics, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. ET

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