The NBA’s inaugural in-season tournament entered its second week Tuesday. Enclosed please find a handful of takeaways from an evening of channel-surfing, in service of trying to meet the league’s level of enthusiasm for this new attempt at injecting stakes into early-November basketball:
Anthony Davis and the Lakers and Grizzlies turn to start a scuffle 👀pic.twitter.com/xjExvBBhgc
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPoints) November 15, 2023
A skeptic might suggest that all the fracases we saw Tuesday stem from either pre-existing conditions — the long-broiling beef between Draymond Green and Rudy Gobert; Green still stewing after Anthony Edwards tucked him in on Sunday and his protective instincts over longtime running buddy Klay Thompson (and perhaps his disinterest in taking the floor without Stephen Curry); raw feelings between the Lakers and Grizzlies going back to last postseason (and, honestly, earlier); the first rumblings of a rivalry between our new skinny overlords (and the collective willingness to mix it up of pugilistic sorts like Zach Collins, Chet Holmgren and Jeremy Sochan); etc.
Really, though, it’s all about the IST. When you’ve got the chance to vie for the NBA Cup, your compete level’s going to be at a 10 … and sometimes, it might even go all the way to 11.
The Pacers’ offense is devastating
The 76ers entered their two-game set against Indiana riding the good vibes of their post-James Harden reorganization — and its attendant replenishing of wing depth and defensive steel — just outside the NBA’s top five in defensive efficiency. They exit just barely inside the top 10. That’s what happens when Tyrese Haliburton and Co. get a good look at you:
The Pacers split the pair with Philly, but put on a show in the process, with Tyrese Haliburton pouring in 58 points over the two games on 20-for-32 shooting, with 10 3-pointers in 18 tries and an eye-popping 32 assists without a turnover across 75 minutes of work. Nobody’s ever been that productive with a sheet that clean in the span of two games.
Haliburton dismantled the Sixers’ drop coverage and the on-ball defense of poor Danuel House Jr. in the first half, drilling six triples to stake Indy to a nine-point advantage at intermission. Later, with Philly’s bigs playing closer to the level of the screen, he transitioned to table-setting, repeatedly finding cutters and rolling big men for layups and dunks. (After spending three seasons barely getting off the bench behind Julius Randle in Tom Thibodeau’s glacially paced Knicks offenses, Obi Toppin — 27 points, 11-for-11 inside the paint — must feel like he’s died and gone to heaven playing with Haliburton under Rick Carlisle.)
The Sixers led 109-106 with 6:30 to go in the fourth. Haliburton promptly led the Pacers to points on five straight possessions, putting Indiana back on top 117-111, and slammed the door with a pair of setups for Myles Turner and a stepback dagger to go up by nine with just over a minute to go, sealing a win that leaves the Pacers alone atop Group A and tied for third in the East.
If it seems like the Pacers get a good shot every time Haliburton is on the floor … well, you’re not wrong. He made his first All-Star team last season and may well have made All-NBA if not for injuries, and he’s been even better this season: 24.7 points and a league-leading 12.7 assists per game, shooting 62% on 2-pointers, 44% on 3s and 93% from the free-throw line, all while posting the lowest turnover rate of his career. Indiana leads the NBA in offensive efficiency, has been dominant in the half-court with Haliburton unlocking every coverage he sees, and absolutely rams the ball down opponents’ throats, even after made baskets. As it turns out, when you’re this good at scoring, you don’t want to waste any time before going and doing it again.
Ausar Thompson is everywhere
The Pistons fell to the Hawks, 126-120, in a game that dropped Detroit to the bottom of Group A. What jumped off the page, though — well, besides Dejounte Murray balling out (32 points, 10 assists, five rebounds, three steals, just two turnovers in 38 minutes) to keep Atlanta’s offense supercharged without Trae Young, out while welcoming a new baby — was just how ever-present Detroit’s new rookie swingman seemed to be:
Everywhere you looked, there was Ausar. Taking the defensive challenge on Murray, who managed just two field-goal attempts in 5 1/2 minutes matched up with the No. 5 pick, according to NBA.com’s tracking data. Staying stride for stride with the bigger Jalen Johnson and absolutely smothering him for a pair of blocks. Getting those active hands into passing lanes and opponents’ dribbles, then hitting the deck to vacuum up loose balls to snare Detroit another possession. Consistently making himself a threat on the offensive end (even with a jumper that’s yet to come online) by pounding the offensive glass, sprinting the floor in transition, cutting behind narcoleptic defenders and trusting his explosive athleticism to go chest-to-chest with a bona fide shot blocker, cock that thing back and bang on him:
Only Mitchell Robinson, Bismack Biyombo and Rudy Gobert are averaging more offensive rebounds per game than Thompson, a 6-foot-7 wing who’s been a pro for all of a month. He’s basically guarding the All-Star team, from Day 1 in the NBA, without blinking, and has been one of the most consistent possession disruptors in the entire league, racking up more steals-plus-blocks than anyone besides Anthony Davis. And his reaction to scoring a career-high 21 points on 9-for-12 shooting was, “I don’t really care … I would rather [get] the win.”
Thompson might not get to the winner’s circle much as a rookie, on a Pistons team that’s struggling mightily to score and desperately needs more shooting. I wouldn’t bet against him getting there eventually, though; getting everywhere he wants seems to be kind of his thing.
Tired: Playoff Jimmy; Wired: IST Jimmy
Despite his entreaties to the contrary, Playoff Jimmy Butler is a thing. And, as it turns out, when you turn part of the regular season into a tournament, you can get some Playoff Jimmy in the autumn, too:
Butler exerted his customary control over the competition, comfortably getting to his spots and converting to the tune of 32 points on 10-for-14 shooting in a 111-105 win over the Hornets. He added a pair of steals and five assists, including a drive-and-kick dime to rookie Jaime Jaquez Jr. for a deflating 3-pointer to put Charlotte down eight with just under four minutes to go, before delivering the dagger himself with 1:11 to go.
Miami’s now 2-0 in the tournament, sitting atop Group B, with matchups against the Knicks and Bucks still on tap. It is perhaps worth remembering what happened the last time Jimmy saw either of those teams with a trophy waiting on the other side of them.
Jimmy hearing the word “tournament” pic.twitter.com/2UOz6RPuQE
— 𝙃𝙀𝘼𝙏 𝙉𝘼𝙏𝙄𝙊𝙉 (@HeatvsHaters) November 15, 2023
Mikal Bridges knows the rules
The in-season tournament uses point differential as a tiebreaker, emboldening teams to keep trying to score right up until the final buzzer, unwritten rules be damned! Under normal circumstances, with the Nets cruising to a double-digit win over the visiting Magic, Brooklyn would just look to dribble the ball out after a closing-seconds turnover. But the whole point of this thing is to make the circumstances decidedly un-normal, right?
Some of the Nets wanted to hold the ball out and Mikal Bridges was calling for the ball to try to add to the point differential.
Stole the ball on the final play and layed it up. Love teams caring about the point differential.
Nets are now 2-1 with a +8 point differential. 2nd…
— Billy Reinhardt (@BillyReinhardt) November 15, 2023
If Brooklyn — now 2-1 in Group C, behind the group-leading Celtics (who have only played one of their IST games thus far) — winds up advancing to knockout play by two points, remember that final-ticks bucket. One man’s garbage-time could be another man’s ticket to Vegas.