The NBA is always attempting to innovate as a league, and after adding Play-In games during the pandemic, they have added a new wrinkle to the regular season in an effort to create engagement and interest in late November.
It’s Thanksgiving weekend, which is typically owned by the final week of college football (raise your hand if you are eagerly awaiting Ohio State vs. Michigan today), and is midway through the NFL season (keep your hand raised if you’re excited for the Arizona Cardinals tomorrow. There’s not many of us...). It’s a prime opportunity to plant your flag and take some claim to viewership and interest.
How do I know this to be true? On Wednesday night, when the Phoenix Suns played the Golden State Warriors, I put out a tweet that I recorded off of my bedroom television set of Chris Paul and his reaction to Scott Foster throwing him out of the game. I am still getting Twitter notifications on that exact tweet.
CP3 to Scott Foster: “You’re a bitch”. pic.twitter.com/5zD9JXnaqg— John Voita (@DarthVoita) November 23, 2023
Because everyone is off from work on a Wednesday night prior to Thanksgiving and, with no college football or NFL games, they are tuned in to basketball. They are watching the Chris Paul and Scott Foster relationship unfold in real time. I just happened to be the first to put out on Twitter what occurred at the moment, and it shut down my phone. I couldn’t text or reply due to the overload of notifications. My friends were worried.
What the NBA has done by adding the In-Season Tournament and games that matter during Thanksgiving weekend is a borderline genius marketing move. Typically this is the time of year when NBA teams are playing their 16th game of the season. Who cares about that? Unless you were a diehard fan monitoring every win and loss, you don’t care if the Suns can go into Memphis and beat them on a Friday night after Thanksgiving.
But with the In-Season Tournament, you do. You’re counting points like a post-WWII PFC in Germany.
Following their victory over the Grizz, which happened to be by 21 points and increased their overall IST (yeah, I’m tired of typing out “In-Season Tournament, so you’ll get some “IST”’s moving forward) point differential to +34 points in the tournament, other games began to matter.
Pelicans currently in a tight one with the Clippers. Suns need New Orleans to win by less than 11 (or lose). Timberwolves play OKC Tuesday and would need to win by 38. pic.twitter.com/hm5iDTFwxC— PHX Fans (@PHXFansAZ) November 25, 2023
Following numerous games that occurred after the Suns’ victory against the Grizzlies, we have a better picture and understanding of what needs to occur for the Suns to actually earn a 45-minute flight to Las Vegas and play in the In-Season Tournament knockout round. It’s a nice flight for those of you who’ve never taken it. Be on the right side of the plane. You’ll see the Grand Canyon without the lines.
Yeah, you’re starting to care about the IST now, aren’t you?
That is what is currently at stake on Tuesday night, the next and last round of In-Season Tournament games and funky courts.
The Suns ended play with the final record of 3-1, adding to the aforementioned +34-point differential with their win on Friday night. The way that it works is, with three groups in the Western Conference, there are three automatic bids. The winners of those groups are joined by one additional “wild card” team, based on record and point differential.
The Suns, seeing as they finished with a 3-1 record — their only loss coming to the Los Angeles Lakers which they should’ve beaten but fell part of the fourth quarter — have a chance to make it to the knockout round. So what do they need to happen in order for that to occur?
Let’s start with the knowledge that Group B is currently toast. The Houston Rockets (2-1) play the Dallas Mavericks (1-2) on Tuesday, and if Houston wins, they’re in. They’d overtake the New Orleans Pelicans (3-1). Seeing as both would finish with a 3-1 IST record and the exciting upstart Rockets hold the tiebreaker — they beat the Pelicans earlier in the tourney — it’d come down to points. And the Pelicans are at +33. One point less than Phoenix.
I guess Devin Booker’s banked-in three-pointer that gave him 40 points on Friday was more important than we thought...
Incredible that this Devin Booker banked-in three-pointer could be the difference between the Suns advancing or being eliminated should things hold.— Zona (@AZSportsZone) November 25, 2023
Pelicans finished plus-33, while Phoenix finished plus-34. Still games to be played but they're in a favorable position. pic.twitter.com/eGlJnvQmlt
Here are the scenarios we should be watching when the IST games on Tuesday tip-off:
Timberwolves win, Warriors lose
The Minnesota Timberwolves (2-1) play the Oklahoma City Thunder (1-2) on Tuesday and a win by the Timberwolves would equate to their advancement to the knockout round of the season tournament...if the Golden State Warriors lose. Both Minny and GSW are 2-1 in Group C — trailing the Sacramento Kings who are 3-0 — and are fighting for the wild card spot themselves.
The key here? The team with the best actual record in the Western Conference at 11-4 needs to knock off the team with the same 11-4 record in OKC. IST game or not, this is a big game. Tune in for quality basketball.
If Minnesota wants to ensure they are playing in Vegas, they need a win. And they need to do so by 38 points. The Wolves are currently -3 in the IST. A 38-point win would put them at 3-1 with a +34 point differential. 1 point more than Phoenix.
Timberwolves win, Warriors win
With teams vying for the 7th and 8th spot in the IST knockout round, there is a world where both the 3-1 Timberwolves and 3-1 Warriors still equate to a Suns’ berth.
The Timberwolves would have to take care of the Thunder — by 38 points — and the Golden State Warriors would have to take care of the Sacramento Kings. The Kings, who sit atop Group C with a 3-0 record, would have to lose. By 30 points.
Draymond Green, who was suspended five games for putting Rudy Golbert in a UFC-styler choke hold, will be eligible to return for the game on Tuesday. Does his presence equate to a +30 in the boxscore? We’ll find out.
In short, things are looking pretty positive relative to the Suns making the In-season tournament as a wildcard team. Even without KD in the lineup on Friday, they took care of business and Frank Vogel had the team fighting until the final buzzer. How many times have you seen a team up 21 points trap in the half-court on the final possession? That is the IST effect.
Unless the wheels fall off the bus, we should see the Suns competing in Vegas in early December. Road trip, anyone?