If you were one of the 17,732 fans to pack into the Barclays Center last Tuesday, you would have noticed a slightly elevated vibe for a November NBA game.
There were special towels handed out to fans for this Nets vs. Magic matchup, while a greyed-out court design featured a trophy illustration at midcourt.
No, this wasn’t an Eastern Conference playoff game. This is now the new norm of the NBA’s In-Season Tournament.
While the concept of an FA Cup-style competition was – and still is – foreign to many basketball fans, the idea has undoubtedly added some extra juice to a slog of an 82-game season.
Around the league, the other 29 franchises have also developed special, often gaudy, court designs for the inaugural tournament.
Spencer Dinwiddie starred for the Nets in their In-Season Tournament win vs. the Magic
And while the hardwoods of the Bulls and Pacers, for example, have proven to be eyesores, NBA commissioner Adam Silver will be thrilled that he even has the eyes of fans at all.
According to Sports Business Journal reporting from last week, ESPN viewership of the games on the first two Fridays they’ve been carried on the network was up a whopping 55 percent over comparable windows last season.
Games on NBA League Pass were also performing 42 percent better as well over the regular season average.
But forget the fans for a second. Some players are loving it too.
‘It’s another chance to win something,’ Domantas Sabonis told The Sporting News over the summer. ‘In international basketball, these cups in the middle of the season are big. They mean something. And then history happens and it’s important.’
The Pacers’ court for the In-Season Tournament is certainly an attention-grabber
Warriors forward Draymond Green distilled the appeal of the format as well.
‘We talk about this in-season tournament and it’s a playoff game,’ he said after a win over the Thunder. ‘It was a fun game to play in. The intensity level was there. It’s a job well done to the NBA, adding this type of excitement in November, because there be some dark days in November, but you get games like this, you can appreciate them. It was great.’
While tournament games don’t count extra in the playoff standings, the sort of added buzz highlighted by Green is important.
For a league constantly grappling with concerns of resting stars and (less so) tanking, it’s nice to see intensity and interest tick up so far out from the playoffs.
That won’t last the entire season, but let’s hope the momentum lasts with tournament play at least.
More of the same for Kevin Durant
Kevin Durant’s move to Phoenix was meant to provide him with a more reliable superteam than the one he had in Brooklyn, but those plans are already going awry early this season.
On Friday, Suns guard Bradley Beal was ruled out for three weeks with a lower back strain – meaning the team’s highly-advertised ‘Big 3’ of Durant, Beal and Devin Booker has yet to even play a game together. Not to mention Booker struggled with injuries out of the gate as well and missed eight of the team’s first ten games before returning to the lineup last week.
On an emotional level, this will feel like a frustrating case of deja vu for Durant, who shared the court with Kyrie Irving and James Harden just 16 times on the Nets before the project blew up.
And on a practical level, the Suns are not exactly a team built to withstand injuries.
Kevin Durant, Bradley Beal and Devin Booker have not all shared the court together yet
While Grayson Allen and Eric Gordon have contributed nicely on offense thus far, the organization certainly invested in top level talent over depth in paying a combined $130.3million to its ‘Big 3’.
Of course, sometimes even 2/3 of that talent is enough, like when Durant’s 38-point near-triple-double dragged Phoenix to the finish line against the Jazz on Friday.
Booker should only get fresher and healthier, but overburdening a 35-year-old is not ideal – especially one with Durant’s recent injury history.
For now, with Beal out, Durant will have to carry a heavy load – just as he was often forced to do in Brooklyn.
Viral moment of the week
A funny clip emerged last week, when a fan sitting near LeBron James on the Lakers bench greeted the star with animal sounds meant to resemble a goat.
James didn’t seem to bat an eye, while Anthony Davis looked slightly confused and another fan cracked a smile.
It was a rather insignificant moment as LA blew out the Grizzlies on Tuesday.
Perhaps, though, it’s more instructive to consider why fans are bothering to still call James the ‘GOAT’ in his 21st season.
While previous players who made it that far in their NBA careers were largely withered versions of themselves, James is producing at a truly unprecedented level for someone with his amount of mileage.
LeBron James is still going strong for the LA Lakers in his 21st season in the NBA
Entering this season, the most prolific year-21 player of all time was Vince Carter, who averaged 7.4 points per game in 2018-19 with the Hawks.
LeBron is averaging more than triple that – 24.6 points – not to mention 8.6 rebounds and 6.1 assists.
James is no longer the most dominant player in the sport, and his days of being the best performer on a title-winner are probably behind him.
But he’s still a marvel to watch this far into his career and going strong approaching his 39th birthday next month.
Heckle him with goat noises while you still can.