NBA In-Season Tournament final four: Where to watch, what to watch for

2023 In-Season Tournament Practice - Indiana Pacers
2023 In-Season Tournament Practice - Indiana Pacers

Welcome to the NBA's Final Four. The inaugural In-Season Tournament has made its way to Las Vegas.

The NBA's In-Season Tournament has been a success — maybe not as big a success as the game broadcast teams have overhyped, but it has worked and worked well. Even the cynics — *raises hand* — have to admit the play has been at a higher level and it's been entertaining to watch. Players bought in, partly because of the prize money and partly because if you give highly competitive people something to play for, they go after it.

"You got some of the most alpha male competitors in the world," LeBron James said. "And if you give us an opportunity to pay for something, something meaningful, an incentive. you get what you get."

Let's break it all down.

How did we get to the Final Four?

All 30 NBA entered the tournament and were divided into six groups of five teams each (three Eastern Conference groups, three West). Each team played four Group Stage games against the other teams in their group, and whichever team had the best record in each group — plus one wild card team from each conference — advanced to the knockout round.

In that first round of knockout games, the Pacers beat the Celtics, and the Bucks knocked off the Knicks in the East, while out West, the Pelicans handled the Kings on the road, and the Lakers beat the Suns in dramatic fashion.

What does the Las Vegas court look like?

A lot of red and blue — the Lakers were told by the league they could not wear their black In-Season Tournament uniforms — in which they are undefeated — because they wouldn't look good against this background. The Lakers have to wear their gold jerseys.

What are the Semi-final games? Where do I watch?

Milwaukee vs. Indiana (5 p.m. ET, Dec. 7, ESPN)

This is going to be highly entertaining — the No. 1 offense in the NBA this season (Pacers) vs. No. 3 (Bucks) and both teams want to play fast (two of the top five teams in pace in the league). This game will be up and down, high-scoring, and packed with highlights. Tyrese Haliburton was underrated as a playmaker last season, showed he was ready for a leap with Team USA at the World Cup this past summer, and has delivered an All-NBA level of play this season at 26.9 points and 11.9 assists a game while shooting 44.7% from 3. He has been one of the three best offensive players in the league so far this season.

However, the conventional wisdom for beating the Bucks in recent seasons is not to let Giannis Antetokounmpo get out and run in transition, to slow him down, and unleashed in this game he could be a force. In the quarterfinal win over the Knicks we finally saw a lot more two-man game between Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard, which is nearly impossible to stop. Milwaukee's two big advantages in this game are: 1) they can defend well (even if they have not done it consistently this season under new coach Adrian Griffin's system) while the Pacers are just bad on that end (28th in the league); 2) Lillard has been the best clutch player in the league so far this season, and that has lifted the Bucks to being great at the end of games.

New Orleans vs. Los Angeles Lakers (9 p.m. ET, Dec. 7, TNT)

Two teams that are finally healthy and with that have shown their potential during the In-Season Tournament. The Pelicans have star names in Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram, but they both started the season a little slow and then have turned it around in recent weeks. In his last 10 games, Zion is averaging 23.6 points a game on 61.7% shooting, he is getting to the rim with force and is nearly impossible to stop once there, a real challenge in the paint for Anthony Davis and the Lakers defenders. Ingram led the Pelicans with 30 against the Kings to reach this stage. The real key to unlocking those two has been the return to health of CJ McCollum and Trey Murphy III, perimeter playmakers and shooters who will make teams play for packing the paint and trying to cut off drives from Zion and Ingram.

The Lakers bring the ageless LeBron James to the table, who turns 39 in a few weeks but is still a top-10 player in the league and can dial it up when he has to — as he did against the Suns in the quarterfinals. These Lakers still go as LeBron goes, he has to be elite for them to win. Anthony Davis has been playing fantastic defense and is averaging 23 points and 12.6 rebounds a game. However, what really stood out in the Lakers' win over the Suns was their defense — with Jarred Vanderbilt finally healthy and next to Taurean Prince and Cam Reddish, the Lakers have real athletic and long wing defenders who can bother elite players. If the Lakers can play defense at that level and slow Zion and Ingram, they will win this game.

When are the In-Season Tournament finals?

The winners of Thursday's two games will play on Saturday, Dec. 9, at 8:30 p.m. ET in Las Vegas, with the game broadcast on ABC.

That is the one game in this entire tournament that does not count as a regular season game. Every other tournament game, including the Thursday semi-finals, also count in the standings for the end of the season. The teams that reach the Finals will play an 83rd game, one where the outcome and statistics do not count toward anything.

What do the players get for winning?

Money. Players on the team that wins the In-Season Tournament get a $500,000 bonus each; after that it's $200,000 each for the runners-up, $100,000 each for players on the two teams that lose in the semi-final games (players on teams that lost in the quarterfinals got $50,000 each). If your reaction is "$500,000 isn't going to motivate NBA stars making $30 million or more," you'd be wrong — many players were very open about the money mattering, and a number of the stars talked about how much that money matters for the guys farther down the bench making league minimum salaries.

"$500,000 sounds real good to us," the Lakers' Davis said a couple of weeks ago. "It's going to bring that juice, you know what I mean?… I heard one of our players, I'm not going to say who but he was like, 'Man, when we beat Phoenix, That's one step closer to this $500 [thousand].' I've never had that before. So it's like, that's a little extra motivation."