The final four teams in the inaugural NBA In-Season Tournament will battle Thursday night in the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas as part of the semifinal round of competition.
The Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers will compete to keep their respective undefeated streaks alive and, potentially, set up a star-studded showdown in the finals.
The Indiana Pacers and New Orleans Pelicans hope to play spoiler and announce their status as contenders to the basketball world.
Ahead of the high-stakes showdowns, enjoy this look at the games’ most intriguing storylines.
Semifinal Round (Thursday, December 7)
Indiana Pacers vs. Milwaukee Bucks (5:00 p.m. ET, ESPN)
New Orleans Pelicans vs. Los Angeles Lakers (9:00 p.m. ET, TNT)
Final Round (Saturday, December 9)
Eastern Winner vs. Western Winner (Time TBD)
Not even a 54-point explosion from Giannis Antetokounmpo could keep the Milwaukee Bucks from losing a November 9 game to the Indiana Pacers, a testament to what that organization and head coach Rick Carlisle are building.
The Pacers bounced the Boston Celtics from the in-season tournament Monday behind 26 points from guard Tyrese Haliburton and 21 from forward Buddy Hield. That tandem will look to lead Indiana to second win over the Bucks.
It will not be easy. Milwaukee is unbeaten in the in-season tournament and is coming off their best performance of the season.
Antetokounmpo led his team to a dominant 24-point victory over the New York Knicks. Giannis threw up 35 points while Damian Lillard added 28 points to cash the team’s ticket to the semis.
Lillard spoke to the media after the win, referring to the performance as the offense’s best of the season to this point. “What did we score? 146 or something like that? And we left a lot of points on the board too. We missed free throws, we missed some shots in the paint. This could have easily been a 165-point game.”
He might be right.
The Bucks shot 60.4 percent from the paint, 60.5 from beyond the arc, and 68.4 from the line.
Defensively, the team tallied 12 steals and six blocks.
Lillard touted the team coming together after a rocky start. “There’s been some bumps in that process where we don’t play so great some nights, but we’re still able to win those games. Now it’s just starting to get a little more smooth.”
He continued, “Knowing where we should be on the floor, knowing how to give each other outlets, knowing how to help each other be who we are. It’s not perfect, but I like that we’re showing improvement and it’s carrying over and you can see it on the floor.”
That defenses have to prepare for the dynamic duo of Dame and Giannis has allowed others to show out, including Malik Beasley, who scored 18 in 32 minutes against New York.
If the Bucks get that kind of production behind their two stars and can even come close to replicating their shooting percentages in the New York game against Indiana, they very well may cruise to the finals.
Brandon Ingram and the New Orleans Pelicans will look to do what no other team has proven capable of to this point in the NBA In-Season Tournament: beat the Los Angeles Lakers.
Ingram, in the midst of a run that has seen him develop into a league superstar, guided his team to a 10-point win over the Sacramento Kings to set up the showdown with LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the Lake Show.
Ingram led the squad with 30 points, eight rebounds, and six assists in 40 minutes while Herb Jones tallied 23, five and five.
That the Pelicans earned the decisive win on a night in which Zion Williamson did not deliver the sort of dominant performance one would expect from a franchise big man (10, six and six) has to have fans giddy.
The combination of Williamson not dominating and fans being giddy may not appear to make much sense but the fact that the team is not dependent upon the former No. 1 overall pick, and can rely on the great Ingram and Co. to lead the team to victory, has helped them reach the semis of this tournament.
Dyson Daniels is second in the NBA in deflections behind defending MVP Nikola Jokic with 73 and the aforementioned Jones ranks 13th with 58. They are superb defenders and a big part of the Pelicans success through this early part of the season.
How they combat James and his ability to dish the ball will be key in New Orleans’ game plan against a Lakers team that is getting healthy and ready to make a run that they hope starts with a tournament win.
Lakers head coach acknowledged the Pelicans’ quality on both sides of the ball.
While Harvin’s words may best be considered a cliched response, there is no doubt he understands that Ingram and Williamson can get hot offensively and that the Pelicans are absolutely capable of stunting the Lakers’ ability to move the ball and score.
If the Lakers do not take advantage of any opening New Orleans presents, or have an off night of any sort, they will suffer their first tournament loss at the worst possible time and the upstart New Orleans squad will be playing Saturday night for the opportunity to make history as the first In-Season Tournament winner.