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NBA in-season tournament quarterfinals takeaways: LeBron James' baffling timeout; Damian Lillard settling in

Let’s be honest here: The NBA was gonna be happy with whatever outcome Tuesday night. Either it was the market of New York City or the superstar duo of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard. Either it was gonna be LeBron James and the Laker mystique, or Kevin Durant and Devin Booker.

Everything doesn’t have to be Stephen Curry or Nikola Jokić, but that’s the beauty of the in-season tournament: With four teams headed to Las Vegas, you don’t need every star. Just a few stars, and some household names.

Here are some observations, as the final four is set: No. 1 Bucks vs. No. 2 Pacers (5 p.m. ET Thursday, ESPN) and No. 1 Lakers vs. No. 3 Pelicans (9 p.m. ET Thursday, TNT).

Defense optional in Bucks-Knicks

Scoring is up all around the NBA, much to the delight of everyone at Olympic Tower. But there’s a reason fans routinely have turned away from the All-Star Game through the years: excess. Two hundred sixty-eight total points would be cool in an overtime game, but it feels a bit much when you consider a game that had these stakes.

The Knicks came in as a top-five team in terms of defensive efficiency, and even though no one would confuse them as a similar team to the Bucks in terms of talent, they do know who they are more than the Bucks — at this point.

None of that mattered at all, especially in the second half when the Bucks methodically pulled away for a comfortable 146-122 victory. It was illustrated in one of the TNT clips where Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau told his team the Bucks hadn’t felt the Knicks defensively. Shooting 60% showed how easy it was for the Bucks. Shooting 60% from 3-point range, with 23 makes, showed how indefensible it seemed for the Knicks.

Thibodeau has done a good job turning the Knicks into a team with a defensive identity, but man, this feels like quite the step back. The Bucks didn’t exactly put on a defensive clinic, still very much adjusting to the new philosophy employed by Adrian Griffin, but did more than enough to take that long plane ride to Las Vegas.

Great equalizer

If there are true reasons for hope the Bucks will be better equipped for playoff basketball than the last two seasons, it was on display Tuesday. Lillard is still finding his way, but he’s looking more like himself with 27.7 points, 8.7 assists, 4.8 rebounds per game on 47/39/91 shooting splits in his last 10. Then he added another five triples on a low-key 13 field-goal attempts. Add that to Malik Beasley settling in nicely from 3, unafraid to take the swing-swing triples, the Bucks can simply overwhelm teams offensively.

It’s resulted in Antetokounmpo forcing his offense less than he has in the past, particularly Tuesday night. To this point, he’s shooting 60% from the field — a career best. It seems like he’s trusting the offense more and letting the game come to him. The Bucks playing at a top-five pace means he’ll get his touches in the flow and still produce the way he’s accustomed to. When the Bucks do force turnovers, he’s out in the open floor, going end-to-end faster than a speeding bullet and fewer than two dribbles.

The aforementioned 23 triples while holding the Knicks to seven almost feels unfair, in addition to having Khris Middleton as a safety-valve playmaker (seven assists). They may not get their defense together to look like a fully formed team in Vegas, but they’ll scare the life out of anyone if this is a June preview.

Milwaukee's Damian Lillard is defended by New York's Julius Randle during the first half of the NBA in-season tournament quarterfinal at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, on Dec. 5, 2023. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

A great game, marred

Who knows how unlikely it would’ve been, but we’ve seen more improbable things. But awarding the Lakers a timeout when the Lakers didn’t have possession of the ball is embarrassingly bad, given the stakes, given the stage, given how obvious it was Austin Reaves had lost control of the ball almost immediately after receiving the inbounds pass. Official Tom Washington awarding James a timeout with the ball loose and underneath the Suns basket is borderline malpractice.

Durant’s potential-tying 3-pointer came up well short, albeit from 35 feet. He looked like he knew James was coming over to foul him so perhaps he took that shot a dribble before he wanted to.

However, it was still a bad look given the moment. Credit James, one supposes, for calling the timeout as opposed to going for the loose ball. Sleight of hand? But what wasn’t an optical illusion was James taking over in the fourth after the Suns made a charge. Perhaps he can’t do it every night, on call. But he can summon nights like this when he knows he has to: 31-11-8, setting up Anthony Davis for inside buckets, drawing just enough attention for Reaves to hit a triple to put them up four — it was an excellent, competitive ballgame until a whistle blew.

Unnecessarily.

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James shoots as Phoenix Suns center Jusuf Nurkić defends during the first half the NBA in-season tournament quarterfinal game on Dec. 5, 2023, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Playoff preview

Bradley Beal was in street clothes and the Lakers were close to full strength, having only Gabe Vincent on the sideline. But playoffs are about matchups and the Lakers have beaten the Suns in all three matchups this season. The Suns are probably the better team, night to night. But the Lakers seem to have their number, simply on styles. The Suns’ style plays right into the Lakers’ hands.

While it’s clear Houston Rockets coach Ime Udoka doesn’t believe in the Lakers’ toughness, the Lakers can swarm the Suns with length and athleticism on the perimeter. Booker has done a more than admirable job at point guard this season, but the Lakers took full advantage of him and Phoenix, forcing 20 turnovers and subsequently, taking 25 more shots.

That’s how a team can shoot 37% and win. And that’s how a team can shoot 49% from the field and 48% from 3-point range and still lose.

The Lakers simply play with more necessary force than the Suns. When the game is in the flow, the Suns can run past the Lakers and just about anyone else most nights. But when it gets tight and snatching the game is required, one wonders if this current roster has the capability to do such a thing — either with physicality or control.

The Lakers dominate both those areas, either by forcing drivers into the paint where Davis is waiting or the traps that seem to confuse the Suns and highlight their need for a point guard.

Some things are by chance, but it doesn’t seem like an accident the Lakers have taken all three games from arguably a better team.