Before the Utah Jazz had played in an in-season tournament game, the players didn’t really know what to expect.
While most were intrigued by the idea and the financial incentive had a lot of players bought in, there was still some trepidation about whether the games would be any different or feel like they mattered more.
There was even a little bit of tongue-in-cheek sarcasm when some were asked about the in-season tournament.
“It’s the most important development in basketball since the peach basket went up,” Jazz head coach Will Hardy joked after a recent practice.
However, after beating the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday in the first game of the group stage, the Jazz are starting to believe in what the NBA is trying to do.
“It feels a little bit more intense, just straight up,” John Collins said on Sunday. “The court, the jerseys, all the extra umph…They want fans, players, coaches just to be more engaged in the regular season, that’s better for business for everybody. And it definitely felt like it had turned up a notch.”
For a lot of the NBA’s international players, who are well-versed in the soccer world, there is an instant recognition of multiple different tournaments throughout a season that pave the way toward the ultimate championship. Additionally, there are similarities between the in-season tournament and competition they are accustomed to playing in with FIBA.
“It’s kind of similar,” Simone Fontecchio said. “In Europe they don’t have the group stage before, with less teams. So you get the top eight teams immediately, but it’s similar. It’s fun and honestly, I really like it. The fact that they’ve got in-season shirts, jerseys, courts, it makes it a lot of fun. Of course, in Europe you don’t play for that amount of money…we’re trying to win that.”
What’s most important, as far as the success of the tournament goes, is that after a single game players across the league are starting to feel their competitive juices flowing.
Multiple players on a number of teams have talked about looking forward on the calendar to their next tournament game, and players have even started playing with the system in mind.
Through this first group stage, the winner from each group will automatically advance to the knockout round. But, so will two wild-card teams (the team from each conference with the best record in group stage games that finished second in its group), and since the groups are so small (just five teams) there’s likely to be a lot of ties. Well, after head-to-head record within group play, the next tiebreaker is based on point differential from group games.
Which is why Anthony Davis mentioned the the final 3-pointer from the Lakers win over the Phoenix Suns (both teams in the Jazz’s group) and why Domantas Sabonis wanted Kevin Huerter to take a final 3-pointer at the end of the Sacramento Kings win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, even though the game was in hand.
With that in mind, the Jazz are seeing a path to victory.
“We’re coming for that cup,” Hardy said to the players after the win in Memphis. “We’re going to Vegas and we’re getting the cup.”
They are currently leading in their group after the first game. Not only are they 1-0 after beating Memphis but they have a plus-6 point differential, the best in the group.
The Jazz’s next two games are in-season tournament games. First, they’ll play the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday and then the Suns on Friday. The finish out group play games on Nov. 21 in Los Angeles, against the Lakers.