It shouldn't be 'weird' that every play matters!
Players and coaches cared about the In-Season Tournament. Good!
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The Boston Celtics were up by 27 points in the fourth quarter against the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday night. As is customary in the NBA, Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla turned to his bench and called for his subs to check in the game. One by one, the players rose from their seats and walked over to the scorer’s table.
After Boston starter Derrick White hit a free throw to move the lead to 28, the Bulls broadcast couldn’t believe what they were seeing. Here’s who was checking in for the C’s:
That’s right: Al Horford, Jaylen Brown and Jrue Holiday — the starters! Boston put its starting unit back on the floor with a 28-point lead as Horford, Brown and Holiday joined Jayson Tatum and White in the game.
The reason? The In-Season Tournament, baby!
The Celtics were playing hard until the very end because every point matters in the In-Season Tournament. To make the eight-team knockout stage next week, point differential would serve as a tie-breaker for teams that shared the same record. At 3-1, the Celtics would need to win by at least 23 points to punch their ticket to the knockout stage and earn a spot over 3-1 Orlando and 3-1 Brooklyn.
Mazzulla, responding to incentives like a rational human being in organized competition, wanted his best players on the floor until the very end.
On the Bulls broadcast, Adam Amin and Stacey King (who are great, by the way) weren’t fans of what was happening and suggested the NBA tweak the policy so that quarters won would be the tiebreaker instead of point differential.
“When you’re doing this stuff, it sends a bad message to guys,” King, a former Bull, said. “You don’t have to run up the score.”
And then Mazzulla pulled out the dagger: the Celtics went Hack-A-Shaq on ‘em.
The Celtics intentionally fouled Andre Drummond, a career 48 percent free-throw shooter, and sent him to the line on consecutive possessions.
Naturally, this pissed off Bulls coach Billy Donovan. As Drummond toed the free-throw line, Donovan looked over at Mazzulla and spoke his mind a bit. Mazzulla walked over and calmly explained his thinking. Eventually, Donovan seemed to understand, nodding his head and walking away.
And I get it: this was utterly embarrassing for a 5-13 Bulls team that has been routinely undressed all season.
On the call, King pivoted on his position and spoke like the proud competitor he is, the guy who won three championships with the Jordan Bulls:
“But I’m old-school though, Adam,” King said. “I’m old school. We’re not going to be worried about [running up the score] because we’re not going to let you get to 23 points. You shouldn’t be in this position. We’re going to play y’all tough and win this ballgame!”
And yet, I woke up on Wednesday morning and couldn’t believe the top headline over at ESPN.com:
Oh, no. Here are some of the quotes in the piece about teams trying to maximize the score.
Knicks’ wing Josh Hart:
It was interesting. I don't really like it. We were focused, at first, just about winning. The last couple of minutes it feels weird. At a certain point, you just start chasing points, doing all that. So it kind of messes with the integrity of the game a little bit.
Cavs star Donovan Mitchell:
I feel like we were all trying to score but also respect the game. So it's different, especially when they took their starters out, you're trying to balance it. But at the end of the day, you're playing to win. You're playing to get to Vegas, get to the tournament. But it's definitely a little weird.
Celtics star Jaylen Brown:
To be honest, it was a little weird, but the ultimate goal was to come out and get a win tonight, and that's what we did. It's tough because that's just not how the game is supposed to be played. You've got to respect your opponents.
Billy Donovan on Mazzulla after the game:
"But I also understand the situation he's in too. He's got to coach his team and do what's right. But I think it was putting Andre in a tough spot down 30 points. But this is from the league. This is what the league has done, making this point-differential thing.''
I gotta tell ya: there’s a lot of loser energy here. I feel like I’m taking crazy pills with some of these quotes.
Integrity of the game? Respect the game? Respect your opponents? THAT’S JUST NOT HOW THE GAME IS SUPPOSED TO BE PLAYED???
I’m sorry, what? To me, this is peak Unwritten Rule Bullshit. And it is certifiably lame.
We’re all adults here. This isn’t my kid’s 8-and-under rec league (which, I’ll be coaching this year!). If Andre Drummond’s feelings get hurt because he’s bad at free throws, well then take him out of the game (Donovan eventually did).
This isn’t geopolitics. As Pat Riley likes to say, sports is the toy department of human affairs. These are all professionals who make millions of dollars playing in a competition. NBA coaches and players complaining about running up the score is right up there with getting mad at bat flips and touchdown celebrations.
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I gotta say, there’s a certain irony to the allegations of basketball crimes here. I actually think what Mazzulla and others did — playing like every point matters — is exactly the sort of the thing the NBA, A PROFESSIONAL, COMPETITIVE SPORTS LEAGUE, should be aiming for.
In fact, I firmly believe that pulling starters out of a game — i.e. not trying to increase your chances of winning — is disrespecting the integrity of the game. How is this a thing?
To me, the ESPN.com headline represents a symptom of something that has plagued the NBA in recent years. What does it say about a league’s culture that it feels “weird” when teams try hard in the regular season? These games have stakes! Players are caring! And it feels weird.
The NBA has tried to make games matter again. It needs the players and coaches to care because they need customers to care. As it tries to negotiate a new TV deal, the NBA has lost a large portion of its TV-viewing audience in recent years, a drum that Ethan Strauss has been beating since 2020. A tweet from the great Myles Brown, cited in one of Strauss’ columns in 2021:
To combat the shifting tides of NBA viewership, the league has tried to spice up the regular season by adding the Play-In Tournament in 2020-21 and the In-Season Tournament this season. It also implemented the Player Participation Policy this offseason to get teams to play its stars more. And so far, as I’ve written, it’s been working.
Now will it lead to a monster broadcast deal? I don’t know. But I applaud the NBA for trying.
I was a fan of the In-Season Tournament from the very beginning. If everyone will care about the regular season just a little bit more, I saw it as a win. With tanking teams and resting stars, the NBA was in danger of being known as the league of apathy. For the good of the bottom line, everyone needs to care more about, you know, the games.
It’s telling that earlier this month Adam Silver joined JJ Redick on The Old Man & The Three show and said his mantra this season is “back to basketball.” I love it! They’ve been upfront that the impending TV deal has forced them to look in the mirror a bit. The league is taking it medicine now, and that’s a good thing.
Is the In-Season Tournament perfect? No. And that’s OK. Some of it needs fine-tuning. I’d vote for group play expanding to eight games for two reasons: everyone plays their group opponent at home and on the road; lengthening the number of games would lead to fewer tiebreaker scenarios that confuse just about everybody.
But overall, I think teams trying to the very end is a feature, not a bug. And I think the best has yet to come. It was a savvy move by the league to have the semifinals in Las Vegas. Not only does it provide another trial balloon for Sin City expansion, but I think the Vegas aspect is a bigger draw for some players/coaches than the cash prizes. NBA staffers truly enjoy going there, and I think they’re relishing in the prospect of breaking up the monotonous schedule with a trip to Vegas.
And there are signs that players and coaches do care more about IST games. According to research at The Finder, each teams’ five starters played two more minutes collectively on average in IST games compared to non-IST games (155.2 vs. 153.1). Case in point, Jayson Tatum has never played more minutes in a 25-point blowout than he did on Tuesday.
The courts were a little much, but we can’t ignore the fact that home teams seemed to enjoy a sweeter homecourt advantage. On the eye-popping courts, the home team in In-Season Tournament games scored more than usual and went 35-25 (.583) with a +4.1 margin of victory compared to a .558 win percentage and +2.3 MOV in all other home games this season. We’ll see if it translates to the quarterfinals next week, but that’s a cool tidbit from the In-Season Tournament play.
The NBA should be proud of its IST product, and I expect the knockout tournament to be awesome. Yes, if a superstar gets hurt in the knockout stage, the boo birds will probably chirp, arguing Adam Silver’s gimmick injured the player. But the knockout games count as a regular-season game that would have been played anyway (that is, until the championship). I might be proven wrong, but I think the IST is here to stay — especially if it can find a title sponsor like Apple to back it.
Big picture, regular-season games matter again and it’ll take some time for the NBA culture to adjust. But that’s a good development for the league. With lagging viewership, they’re not in a position to worry about running up the score.
I’m reminded of my first golf lesson I took this summer (I suck at golf). After a bunch of swings, the golf coach stopped me and told me I was doing it all wrong. He tweaked my inside-out backswing and instructed me to hit it more up and down. I tried that a few times. It felt so alien. But I wasn’t in position to argue.
And soon enough, I was hitting them straight. Apparently, I had gotten into some bad habits over the years.
“Oh my god,” I told him. “This feels SO weird.”
“Yeah,” the guy laughed, “That’s how it’s supposed to feel.”