Not all are built for The Cup
Joe Mazzulla, the Kings and others were forged for The Cup, forged by The Cup. Some were not.
Good morning. Let’s basketball.
The group stage of the inaugural NBA Cup lived up to every expectation in its thrilling conclusion on Tuesday night. We learned so much about what it takes to win at this level when the stakes are this … weird. We learned what men are willing to do in opposition to the unwritten rules, against their principles and personal code. All for The Cup. And $500,000.
Here is a brief list of those who were made for The Cup.
Facing the Bulls, the Celtics needed to win by a good margin to eclipse Orlando’s margin in the event that the Nets, playing simultaneously against the Raptors, won their game to create a three-way tie atop East C. In the event that the Nets lost to the Raptors, the Celtics needed to build as high a margin as possible to try to win the uncertain wild card, who would be impacted by other simultaneous games involving the Cavaliers, Knicks and Heat.
So in the fourth quarter, up 32 points, Joe Mazzulla calls for the team to intentionally foul Andre Drummond.
Billy Donovan looks as angry as Billy Donovan ever looks at a non-ref and talks to Mazzulla. Drummond misses both. The Bulls broadcast team spends a bunch of time encouraging the league to change the tiebreaker system because of the potential for bad blood and embarrassment.
After the game, Joe Mazz explained how the Celtics approached the weird situation. Basically, he had the Celtics staffer monitoring the needed point differential update him in the fourth quarter that the Knicks and Nets scores made it so Boston needed to push their lead higher. That’s what Mazzulla is communicating to Donovan, who thinks a 23-point margin gets Boston through.
Mazzulla actually avails himself really well here given that he downplayed the tournament earlier in the day and his star, Jayson Tatum, has been complaining about the Magic running the score up in their win over the Celtics.
In any case, the Nets won their game by 12 and the Celtics ended up winning by 27, which was enough to claim East C and a bid to the knockouts. The Magic and Nets were eliminated as a result. That 27-point win would not have been enough to win the wild card if the Nets had lost their game. They needed to embarrass the Bulls. And they did.
The Beam Team
The Timberwolves and Thunder were locked in a tight battle as the Warriors and Kings tipped off in Sacramento. If the Wolves triumphed, the Kings could advance by winning by any margin or losing by 11 or less. If the Wolves fell, Kings vs. Warriors was winner take all.
Regardless, the Warriors jumped on the Kings immediately. Golden State briefly went up double digits in the first quarter, and had a 24-point lead just before halftime. The Wolves won their game narrowly to give the Kings a little cushion.
But also, the Kings desperately want to beat the Warriors. Did you know that 11 of the Kings’ last 25 regular season and playoff games have come against the Warriors? Almost half of its past two dozen real games have been against one of the most annoying and good teams in the league! That’s really wrong. Familiarity breeds contempt. Trust me on that.
In any case, the Kings stormed back late in the third and into the fourth. Steve Kerr made some wild rotational decisions — resting Steph Curry at the six-minute mark, pulling a red-hot Moses Moody. The refs were sending the Kings to the line at every opportunity. (This felt weird, not gonna lie.) Draymond Green, in his not-so-triumphant return, picked up an extremely soft technical that might have been a make-up call for a totally egregious flop that went uncalled a few possessions earlier.
Kerr made an atrocious challenge decision on a Curry kick-out offensive foul to burn his last timeout with three minutes left. Sasha Vezenkov was nailing threes. Trey Lyles was blocking shots. It was madness. And though it became clear that the Kings were at minimum going to lose by less than 12 unless the game went to overtime and the Warriors blew out Sacramento there, the game took on new meaning.
And it ended with Malik Monk making one of the toughest game-winners of the season.
The Kings go 4-0 in the Group of Death and claim a home game in the quarterfinals. Light the Beam.
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New York needed to win big to claim a wild card spot. They beat the Hornets by 24. That’ll do. That’ll do. Julius Randle with 25-20.
New York will face the Bucks in the quarterfinals.
Donovan Mitchell had 40, but Evan Mobley was the stand-out star of the Cavaliers’ 23-point win over the Hawks.
The margin wasn’t enough — only beating the Pistons by eight early in the tournament stung them — but Cleveland did really well in the inaugural NBA Cup. One of the three best teams not advancing in my book.
What about those who are not made for The Cup?
What an incredible meltdown.
And forget about The Cup for a second: this is an abysmal loss given the state of the team, what should have been a boost in getting Green back, big games from Klay Thompson and Andrew Wiggins, continued struggles from Domantas Sabonis when defended by Kevon Looney and Green, no Keegan Murray, an inefficient shooting night from De’Aaron Fox, short travel — sure, you lost Chris Paul early and GP2 late. But all that and a 24-point lead and you choke it up to fall to 8-10 on the season, effectively tied for 10th place?
Your mission: beat the Dallas Mavericks on a normal-ass NBA court with no runway down the middle to advance to the quarterfinals where you’d likely face the Kings, a team you’ve already beaten twice this season.
Your result: 41-9-9 for Luka Doncic (zero turnovers), 27-5 with zero turnovers for Kyrie Irving, a whopping two steals as a team, an 8/29 performance from behind the arc, an L and an elimination. Pelicans advance.
2 points, 2 rebounds, 4 assists while shooting 1/9 in 25 minutes before being ruled out of the game in the second half. Dude looks completely checked out from the Bulls Experience.
When asked a question about how Kyrie and Luka have become more efficient in clutch situations than they were last season, Kidd gets pissy about not getting more positive press.
That was a question about something the Mavericks are doing well. Toughen up that skin, bud! Sheesh.
Jimmy Butler’s ankle
He did not dress in the Heat’s must-win game against the Bucks. I guess we know where Heat Culture stands on the importance of the NBA Cup.
Here’s The Cup bracket with the eight surviving team. Games are Monday and Tuesday.
Celtics at Pacers
Knicks at Bucks
Pelicans at Kings
Suns at Lakers
Winners in each conference will face off in the semifinals in Las Vegas on Thursday, December 7. Conference winners have a showdown on in a primetime game on Saturday, December 9 on ABC.
Can you hear it? The crowd of people demanding a Pacers-Kings final dubbed the Haliburton-Sabonis Debate Singularity?
One interesting wrinkle: for the semifinals games on TNT, ESPN’s NBA crew will join on the studio side and the broadcast booth. Stephen A. Smith and Michael Wilbon will join the Inside the NBA crew for pre- and post-game coverage, though it sounds like they’ll all be split between two studios. Meanwhile, Doc Rivers will call a game with Kevin Harlan and Candace Parker while Reggie Miller will join a broadcast with Mike Breen and Doris Burke.
It’s really too bad ESPN laid off Jeff Van Gundy because this would have been a great opportunity to have the brothers call a game together.
Assessing Proposed Fixes for the Tiebreaker Situation
Fans and analysts have been throwing around potential solutions for the tiebreaker situation to avoid coaches and veterans from getting hurt feelings over getting their asses kicked. I think scoring margin remains fine, and in fact I look forward to teams getting religion on running up the score earlier in the group stage next season. But if it’s untenable to continue, here are the options I’ve seen:
More group stage games ❌
The more group stage games you have, the more differentiation in the records you’ll have. I don’t like it. Expanding the scope of The Cup will dilute the power of each individual game. It being limited to four games per team maximizes the likelihood every game has stakes. All eight games on Tuesday had real NBA Cup stakes. That’s important to maintain interest.
Use the standings as the tiebreaker ✔️
I heard Candace Parker mention this one, though I’m sure it’s been floating around elsewhere too. If the scoring margin situation is untenable, ties are settled by the regular season standings. In this case, Boston would still have won East C, but Orlando would have won the East wild card over New York and Minnesota would have won the West wild card over Phoenix. This serves to add a little extra juice to early season regular season games, too — if you want to advance in The Cup, you either need to win all of your group stage games or win three of them and be at/near the top of the conference standings.
Coin flips ❌
Adam Silver’s whims ❌
He already decides who wins the championship on an annual basis, don’t give him this power too.
Expanded knockout round ✔️
So all of the teams that didn’t make the knockouts will get some games (two) added to their schedules now. That opens the possibility of expanding the knockouts to allow more 1-loss teams in. I don’t think expanding to 16 teams is the right call here: that cheapens the group stage a bit. But what about 12 teams, with the best two group winners in each conference advancing straight to the quarterfinals? If this were in place this season you’d have:
Magic at Celtics (winner plays the Pacers) and Cavaliers at Knicks (winner plays the Bucks)
Timberwolves at Pelicans (winner plays the Kings) and Rockets at Suns (winner plays the Lakers)
This extends the scoring margin importance across more games and gives 2-2 teams (like the Rockets) a small chance of advancing. Seems good!
The only other tweak I’d make to the NBA Cup at this stage is that I think the winner of the championship game — the only game in this that doesn’t count in the standings — should get a win added to their regular season total, but a loss in that game should not count. Then winning The Cup becomes a de facto first tiebreaker at the end of the regular season. I think that’s an appropriate incentive that doesn’t mess with the bracket or late-season rest decisions (as an automatic top-6 seed would).
What else should change about the NBA Cup?
The greatreports that Mark Cuban has agreed to sell a majority stake in the Dallas Mavericks to Miriam Adelson, whose family owns Las Vegas Sands, which helped develop a number of luxury resorts on The Strip and now owns a bunch of luxury resorts in Singapore and Macau. But Stein reports that Cuban will retain some shares in the club and, importantly, direct control of basketball operations. That’s a weird but not unprecedented situation. It’s mostly weird because Cuban is extremely divisive within the Mavericks fandom for his level of meddling.
Stein points out smartly that Cuban has been openly talking about building a new arena in the middle of a casino and resort, assuming Texas legalizes gambling, for which there is an ongoing effort led in part by … Las Vegas Sands. So partnering with Las Vegas Sands and the Adelson family in ownership of the Mavericks makes sense along those lines.
Others have pointed out that liquidating a portion of something so close to Cuban’s heart the same week he reportedly quit his role on Shark Tank is an indication that he plans to run for President, something he has professed real interest in doing in the past.
Ironically, the Adelson family — particularly Miriam’s late husband Sheldon Adelson — is one of the biggest donors to conservative causes in the nation. Cuban is a professed libertarian who has spent a lot of time mocking Donald Trump. One presumes that a presidential run would be as a third-party candidate. Fun fact: Cuban bought the Mavericks from Ross Perot. Time is a flat circle.
Seven games, including a League Pass Cup (🏆) banger. All times Eastern.
Lakers at Pistons, 7
Wizards at Magic, 7 🏆
Suns at Raptors, 7:30
Jazz at Grizzlies, 8
Sixers at Pelicans, 8
Rockets at Nuggets, 9
Clippers at Kings, 10, NBA TV
Be excellent to each other.