NBA in-season tournament tiebreaker causes quandary

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Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Point differential took on real meaning in the NBA on Tuesday night, when some teams looking to stay alive in the inaugural in-season tournament needed to win -- and win big -- in order to advance.

Not everyone involved was in love with the situation.

The New York Knicks finished second in Group B behind the Milwaukee Bucks. But after beating the Charlotte Hornets 115-91, the Knicks secured the sole wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference by tiebreaker because of their point differential in the preliminary round.

New York guardJosh Hartsaid after Tuesday's contest he wasn't too fond of the idea that in order to advance, the Knicks had to run up the score on their opponent.

"It was interesting. I don't really like it," he said. "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."

Like the Knicks, the Cleveland Cavaliers finished group play at 3-1, but the Cavs' point differential wasn't large enough to advance to next week's quarterfinals. They went down with a fight, though.

Trailing by 20 against Cleveland, Atlanta Hawkscoach Quin Snyder pulled his starters with 3:54 left. However, Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff stuck with his first team the rest of the way, hoping it could open an even bigger lead to advance.

As some of Cleveland's assistants monitored the out-of-town games from their seats, the Cavs didn't let up.

Cleveland star Donovan Mitchell admitted the final few moments were awkward.

"I feel like we were all trying to score but also respect the game," he said. "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."

Snyder agreed the end-game situation was somewhat uncomfortable.

"To be honest, I try to focus on my team," he said. "I'm sure you can understand that. In that situation, it isn't ideal."

Perhaps the strangest situation came in Boston, where the Celtics needed a win and a huge scoring night against the reeling Chicago Bulls to have a chance at reaching the tournament quarterfinals.

They got both.

The Celtics trounced the Bulls 124-97, with star Jayson Tatum playing the final 9:33 and all five starters playing at least five minutes in the fourth quarter despite Boston being up 29 entering the period.

"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," Celtics starJaylen Brown said, noting that that focus on point differential was more than a little unusual. "It's tough because that's just not how the game is supposed to be played.

"You've got to respect your opponents."

Boston coach Joe Mazzulla said he also wasn't comfortable running up the score and admitted as much to Bulls counterpart Billy Donovan in a lengthy discussion they had during a stoppage in play in the final quarter.

Donovan said he was particularly upset with the Celtics' decision to repeatedly foul Andre Drummond in the fourth to send him to the foul line, where he made 1 of 6 free throws.

"But I also understand the situation he's in too. He's got to coach his team and do what's right," Donovan said of Mazzulla. ''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.''

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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