The Case for Each Team in the NBA In-Season Tournament Final Four

The Case for Each Team in the NBA In-Season Tournament Final Four article feature image
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Cyriel Klitsie/Action Network. Pictured: LeBron James, Zion Williamson, Tyrese Haliburton, Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Two modern-day blue bloods.

Two upstarts.

This is the tournament you want.

The Los Angeles Lakers earned their way to Las Vegas alongside the Milwaukee Bucks, IndianaPacers, and New Orleans Pelicans with their win Tuesday night in the NBA In-Season Tournament Semifinals.

As a result, the league gets the best of all worlds. It gets to promote the idea that any team can win this tournament, that young teams from small markets have a realistic shot of winning the Cup, even if neither Pelicans nor the Pacers reach Saturday night's final. The NBA has hedges for popularity with the most popular team and the most popular player in a city close enough to L.A. for Lakers fans to attend. If the Lakers don't reach the Final, there's a good chance the latest superteam with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard take home the hardware.

Think of it like March Madness, with the Lakers and Bucks as the powerhouse programs and the Pacers and Pelicans as the mid-majors. They might not exactly qualify as Cinderellas with $100 million salaries on the books, but they still represent the "little" guy up against the big bad championship contenders.

Among the many great things the IST has turned out to be, it being a no-lose situation is pretty good. If the Lakers lose, whatever, they have championship aspirations. If they win, LeBron James wins the first inaugural Cup (and likely Tournament MVP). If the Bucks lose, their goal is a championship, but if they win, Damian Lillard finally takes home something of real meaning in hardware and Giannis gets to reclaim a share of "best player on Earth.'

And if the Pelicans or Pacers lose, well, they pulled off upsets and made it to Vegas. If they win? It's a great thing for their franchises and the league that the younger teams are learning to win. (Pelicans have some veterans, for sure, but are still less experienced.)

Here's the case for each of the final four teams:

New Orleans Pelicans

Best Odds: +380

The Pelicans might be the most complete team left in the tournament. Their defense is better than the Bucks' or Pacers', and their offense is better than the Lakers'. They're finally healthy and have the size to really battle with the Lakers in the semifinal. Can they keep pace with the East's offenses?

Indiana Pacers

Best Odds: +450

The most momentum. No one had as much of a feel-good win as the Pacers knocking off the top team in the tournament, the Boston Celtics, in the quarterfinals. The Pacers have the league's best offense and no one has figured out how to slow them down.

Milwaukee Bucks

Best Odds: +170

For all the warts on their resume, they absolutely blistered the nets vs. the Knicks. Their offense may not be quite as high-octane as the Pacers, but it feels like a machine with Giannis and Dame. They're battle-tested as well.

Los Angeles Lakers

Best Odds: +240

They'll have a massive home-court advantage on what should be a neutral court,  the greatest player of a generation, and at full health, have started to find themselves. The history of the league bends its arc towards the Lakers and their winning the first IST would only follow the strongest narrative in league history since the 60s: The Lakers Win.

If group play proved that the tournament could provide games that felt juiced with more stakes for the normal sleepy November contests, the quarterfinals proved you could create high-intensity atmospheres. The Indiana game felt wild and like a real moment, the Lakers game had controversy with the final call.

Austin Reaves lost the ball on pressure on an in-bounds up three, only for the officials to grant a timeout called by LeBron James when Reaves didn't clearly have possession of the ball. It's the kind of call that is pretty easy to get wrong but in the context of the moment, only adds to the infuriating sentiment that the Lakers always get things to go their way.

The most popular franchise with the most popular player is also the most popular to root against, and that sets the Lakers up as ideal foils for the other three small markets in the tournament.

As for who wins?

My lean is to the Pelicans. I expected them to beat the Kings, and like the way their size matches up with the Lakers. The Lakers are big and athletic, and the Pelicans have more muscle and wing size, along with more shooting. There are personal stakes here, too. Brandon Ingram was the prodigal son before he was shipped out in the Anthony Davis deal.

The Pacers can absolutely give the Bucks a run. They beat Milwaukee earlier this season when the Bucks were without Dame. Milwaukee's defense gave up 41 points to Julius Randle in the quarterfinals and a 120 defensive rating; they just shot 23-of-38 from three and obliterated the Knicks in the math game.

That won't be the case with the Pacers, who can and will bomb from deep. Giannis is the best player in the game, but Tyrese Haliburton might legitimately be second. If the Pacers can make this a shootout, even with what Milwaukee did to the Knicks, they have a chance.

Pacers vs. Pelicans would be a fascinating clash of styles, but I'd lean to the Pelicans with a better balance of offense and defense. It would be a wild "styles make fights" game, however.

If the favorites win and it's Lakers vs. Bucks, the NBA will be happy even if it's still two title contenders and heavy favorites advancing. LeBron vs. Giannis on a Saturday night would be must-see TV and feel like a heavyweight fight even with James at 39.

I would lean towards the Bucks there, only because they would have such a big advantage in made 3s.

Either way, the NBA In-Season Tournament is a hit, and you should expect it for years to come. Now we just have to see who comes home with the hardware and how to bet it.

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