What is the NBA in-season tournament? Format, schedule, groups

The NBA’s inaugural in-season tournament has reached the knockout rounds, which will culminate in one team hoisting the NBA Cup and each of its players walking away with $500,000.

After all 30 teams were split into six groups and played four group stage games across November, eight have now qualified for the quarterfinals: the Milwaukee Bucks, Indiana Pacers, Boston Celtics and New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference; and the Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings, New Orleans Pelicans and Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference.

The Pacers will host the Celtics on Monday night, followed by the Pelicans facing the Kings in Sacramento. Tuesday will see the Bucks host the Knicks, followed by the Suns playing at L.A.; both contests are rematches from the group stage.

The winners will advance to the semifinals on Dec. 7 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, followed by the championship game on Dec. 9.

So what, exactly, is the NBA Cup? How will the tournament work? Why is it happening? What is the NBA hoping to get out of it?

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Tuesday | FAQ | Full Schedule


Dramatic final day of group stage action sets up quarterfinals

NEW YORK — The last day of group stage play for the in-season tournament delivered every bit of the excitement the NBA hoped it would.

With all eight of Tuesday’s games having implications for which teams would advance to the quarterfinals, the standings changed constantly throughout the course of the evening.

By the end of the night, the bracket was set.

With all five Eastern Conference games tipping off at the same time, it wasn’t until the slate’s final buzzer that the Bucks clinched the top seed by beating the Miami Heat 131-124 to win Group B.

As the evening unfolded, it remained unclear how things were going to shake out — even after teams had won their games. The Knicks, for example, had to wait about half an hour after they hammered the Charlotte Hornets 115-91 to find out that they were going to Milwaukee as a wild card.

“It’s met its intended purpose,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said with a smile when asked if the various tiebreaker possibilities were as confusing to him as they were to many following along.

Meanwhile, the Celtics’ 124-97 blowout win over the Chicago Bulls allowed them to top East Group C. Boston will now travel to take on East Group A winner Indiana, which already had wrapped up its tournament schedule.

The game that wound up having the night’s biggest impact in the East was the Brooklyn Nets’ 115-103 win over the Toronto Raptors, as it handed the group to the Celtics. If Toronto had won that game, the Orlando Magic would’ve won the group by virtue of their home win over the Celtics on Friday.

But because of Boston’s big margin of victory versus the Bulls, the C’s won the three-way tie over Orlando and Brooklyn by having the best point differential.

That, in turn, meant the Magic, who had completed group stage play last week, were eliminated.



Malik Monk puts Kings ahead, Steph Curry comes up short at buzzer

Malik Monk puts the Kings ahead with 8 seconds remaining, and Steph Curry can’t hit the 3 at the other end as Sacramento advances in the in-season tournament.

Things were a lot more straightforward out West, but that didn’t make it any less intriguing.

The Houston Rockets had a chance to claim both West Group B and their first road victory of the season with a win over the Dallas Mavericks. Instead, Mavs star Luka Doncic had 41 points and nine assists as Dallas won 121-115 to knock Houston out of the competition.

That meant the Pelicans won the group, instead, though they had to wait a few more hours to find out their opponent.

The Minnesota Timberwolves, meanwhile, were eliminated despite winning 106-103 over the visiting Oklahoma City Thunder. Minnesota needed to win by a significant margin to advance. Its slim victory meant that either the Kings or the Golden State Warriors would win the group, all while ensuring the Suns the wild-card spot and a date with the Lakers.

That left Tuesday’s final game between the Kings and Warriors to set the field. Sacramento couldn’t lose by more than 12 points in order to advance. But after trailing at home by as many as 24 points in the first half and 17 at halftime, the Kings came roaring back to prevail 124-123 on a circus shot by Malik Monk in the closing seconds.

“After we were done with our [halftime] meeting, some of our assistants let us know what the situation was, but we wanted to win the game,” Kings star De’Aaron Fox said on TNT’s “Inside the NBA” afterward.


Dec. 4 | Boston Celtics at Indiana Pacers | 7:30 p.m. | TNT

Dec. 4 | New Orleans Pelicans at Sacramento Kings | 10 p.m. | TNT

Dec. 5 | New York Knicks at Milwaukee Bucks | 7:30 p.m. | TNT

Dec. 5 | Phoenix Suns at Los Angeles Lakers | 10 p.m. | TNT

Tuesday’s games

Celtics 124, Bulls 97
Nets 115, Raptors 103
Cavaliers 128, Hawks 105
Bucks 131, Heat 124
Knicks 115, Hornets 91
Timberwolves 106, Thunder 103
Mavericks 121, Rockets 115
Kings 124, Warriors 123

NBA in-season tournament standings

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Why is this happening?

NBA commissioner Adam Silver has wanted to implement it for years, for a variety of reasons. Much like the play-in games, though, it took a long time for him to convince everyone involved to give it a shot.

The first hope, obviously, is that it generates revenue. The NBA believes the in-season tournament can become a significant moneymaking franchise over time because of the ability to sell its television rights — as it did with the WNBA’s version of the event.

The other hope is to draw more eyeballs to the league. The stretch of time the tournament is set within — from the start of November through the first week of December — might be the most irrelevant part of the NBA schedule.

It’s after the initial rush of the season starting, and alongside the college football and NFL regular seasons. If this tournament can bring more attention to the sport during its least relevant time of the year, it will be seen as a victory.

What is the format?

Silver has long been fascinated with European soccer, and the basis for the NBA’s in-season tournament lies in the cup tournaments across Europe. In those leagues, there is a regular-season championship, determined by the team with the most points over the full year, and then a separate tournament (or, in some leagues, multiple tournaments) that runs concurrently with the league season.

Unlike European soccer tournaments, though, which all are played outside of the league schedule, the NBA Cup is built into the NBA’s regular-season schedule. The 30 teams were split up into six five-team groups.

The four group stage games will be played on seven November dates: four Fridays (Nov. 3, 10, 17 and 24) and three Tuesdays (Nov. 14, 21 and 28).

The quarterfinals will be played Dec. 4 and 5 at the higher-seeded team, and the semifinals and championship game will be Dec. 7 and 9 in Las Vegas.

How will this impact the regular-season schedule and standings?

Typically, the NBA sends out a full 82-game schedule in mid-August. This year, though, the league only sent 80 games, with a gap in the schedule from Dec. 3-10. Each team’s final two regular-season games will be determined by how the in-season tournament plays out.

The 22 teams that fail to qualify for the knockout rounds of the in-season tournament will have their final two games scheduled — one at home and one on the road — on Dec. 6 and 8 against other teams eliminated in the group stage.

The East teams that lose in the quarterfinals and the West teams that lose in the quarterfinals will play each other on Dec. 7. The teams that lose in the semifinals in Las Vegas will have played their full allotment of 82 games, while the teams that reach the championship game will actually wind up playing 83 games — with the championship game not counting toward the regular-season standings.

Why does the NBA Cup include regular-season games?

Before its launch, one of the biggest questions surrounding the in-season tournament was why any team would be incentivized to compete in it. By making it part of the regular-season schedule, and making every game count toward the regular season — very important from a playoff tiebreaker standpoint — the NBA created a situation in which it is in teams’ interest to win these games.

If this had been set up like the cup tournaments in European soccer, there would’ve been nothing stopping NBA teams from opting out literally or figuratively, sitting all of their top players and getting extra rest time. Under this system, though, they’ll have every incentive to play and win.

What teams make up the groups?

To create the groups — which were separated by conferences — the NBA put all 15 teams in each conference into five pots, separated by their finish in last season’s standings. So: Pot 1 included the teams that finished 1-3 in regular-season record, teams 4-6 went into Pot 2, teams 7-9 in Pot 3, teams 10-12 in Pot 4 and teams 13-15 in Pot 5.

As a result, the following groups were drawn:

East Group A: Philadelphia 76ers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks, Indiana Pacers, Detroit Pistons

East Group B: Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks, Miami Heat, Washington Wizards, Charlotte Hornets

East Group C: Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls, Orlando Magic

West Group A: Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns, LA Lakers, Utah Jazz, Portland Trail Blazers

West Group B: Denver Nuggets, LA Clippers, New Orleans Pelicans, Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets

West Group C: Sacramento Kings, Golden State Warriors, Minnesota Timberwolves, Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs

What do players get for winning?

The players on the winning team will each get $500,000, while the runners-up will get $200,000. The losing players of the semifinals will each get $100,000, and the losing players of the quarterfinals will each get $50,000.

Will anyone earn individual honors for their play in NBA Cup games?

There will be a Most Valuable Player award for the in-season tournament, as well as an all-tournament team.

Will this have any impact on the playoffs?

Not beyond the games being regular-season games that count in the standings. While there was some debate among league insiders about guaranteeing a playoff berth as a reward for winning the tournament, ultimately that idea — or any other to further incentivize teams — was not enacted. The only playoff impact will come from the wins and losses accrued throughout the tournament.

Why is it called the NBA Cup?

Because it’s easy enough to change. In the short term, the NBA has said it went with the most basic of titles for both the tournament and its trophy — the “in-season tournament” and “NBA Cup” — as a way to introduce the concept to fans. However, using such bland, nondescript names has another clear advantage: When the league looks to sell the naming rights to both, it’ll be an easier transition from an unremarkable name than one connected with a specific individual (such as the late David Stern, one possibility that had been floated before the tournament was officially unveiled).



Everything you need to know about the NBA in-season tournament

Richard Jefferson gives an in depth explanation of the NBA in-season tournament.

In-season tournament scores and schedule

*All times are ET

Nov. 3

Pacers 121, Cavaliers 116

Bucks 110, Knicks 105

Heat 121, Wizards 114

Nets 109, Bulls 107

Trail Blazers 115, Grizzlies 113 (OT)

Nuggets 125, Mavericks 114

Warriors 141, Thunder 139

Nov. 10

76ers 114, Pistons 106

Hornets 124, Wizards 117

Celtics 121, Nets 107

Rockets 104, Pelicans 101

Jazz 127, Grizzlies 121

Timberwolves 117, Spurs 110

Mavericks 144, Clippers 129

Lakers 122, Suns 119

Kings 105, Thunder 98

Nov. 14

Pacers 132, 76ers 126

Hawks 126, Pistons 120

Heat 111, Hornets 105

Nets, 124, Magic 104

Pelicans 131, Mavericks 110

Thunder 123, Spurs 87

Nuggets 111, Clippers 108

Timberwolves 104, Warriors 101

Lakers 134, Grizzlies 107

Nov. 17

Bucks 130, Hornets 99

Knicks 120, Wizards 99

76ers 126, Hawks 116

Cavaliers 108, Pistons 100

Celtics 108, Raptors 105

Kings 129, Spurs 110

Magic 103, Bulls 97

Pelicans 115, Nuggets 110

Suns 131, Jazz 128

Lakers 107, Trail Blazers 95

Clippers 106, Rockets 100

Nov. 21

Magic 126, Raptors 107

Pacers 157, Hawks 152

Cavaliers 122, 76ers 119 (OT)

Suns 120, Trail Blazers 107

Lakers 131, Jazz 99

Nov. 24

Magic 113, Celtics, 96

Suns 110, Grizzlies 89

Knicks 100, Heat 98

Raptors 121, Bulls 108

Pacers 136, Pistons 113

Rockets 105, Nuggets 86

Bucks 131, Wizards 128

Kings 124, Timberwolves 111

Warriors 118, Spurs 112

Pelicans 116, Clippers 106

Nov. 28

Celtics 124, Bulls 97

Nets 115, Raptors 103

Cavaliers 128, Hawks 105

Bucks 131, Heat 124

Knicks 115, Hornets 91

Timberwolves 106, Thunder 103

Mavericks 121, Rockets 115

Kings 124, Warriors 123


Dec. 4 | Boston Celtics at Indiana Pacers | 7:30 p.m. | TNT

Dec. 4 | New Orleans Pelicans at Sacramento Kings | 10 p.m. | TNT

Dec. 5 | New York Knicks at Milwaukee Bucks | 7:30 p.m. | TNT

Dec. 5 | Phoenix Suns at Los Angeles Lakers | 10 p.m. | TNT


Dec. 7 | TBD | 5 p.m. | ESPN

Dec. 7 | TBD | 9 p.m. | TNT


Dec. 9 | TBD | 8:30 p.m. | ABC

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