NBA’s In-Season Tournament Recreates the Electric Atmosphere of the Bubble

Adam Silver’s attempt to bring more excitement to the NBA’s regular season fell a little flat in its first attempt. It’s only the first In-Season Tournament, so there are sure to be kinks to work out, but maybe it wasn’t the best idea to have the final on a neutral court. The Lakers must’ve felt nostalgic for their 2020 championship in the bubble the way the crowd without a rooting interest watched in silence. Did the NBA In-Season Tournament add some urgency for the players? Sure. After all, there was a cash prize. And even if players don’t care about this nearly as much as they would a playoff game (they shouldn’t), they definitely still would prefer winning to losing. But the added significance hasn’t yet translated to more entertaining games. Silver added this tournament because he wanted to make the early part of the regular season more exciting, but he somehow managed to make something even more boring than a normal nationally televised regular season game. This didn’t just feel like a regular season game; it felt like when there’s nothing to watch on a Tuesday night and you flip through the channels and wind up on a Wizards vs Magic game on Comcast SportsNet. The kind where you fall asleep on the couch during the third quarter and wake up at God knows what time with professional corn hole on the TV screen. There was the occasional “Let’s go, Lakers” chant as a a few Los Angeles fans made the three-hour drive to Las Vegas, but the game completely lacked any kind of intense atmosphere. The commentators kept insisting that playing in the final of the IST gives a young Indiana Pacers team experience in a playoff atmosphere, but nothing about that atmosphere resembled the playoffs. The single-elimination format has a chance to give the NBA some of that March Madness magic, but NBA fans aren’t going to travel for a new tournament that no one is sure if they should care about the same way college fans do for March Madness. The NBA hardly ever has neutral site games to begin with. The only ones that come to mind are the Global Games, where twice a year, teams play a regular season game in Mexico or France. It seems like the logic behind having the knockout stage in Vegas was to artificially increase its sense of importance. To give the illusion that it was a pay-per-view fight in boxing’s golden age. The location was even one of the bigger selling points in the events’ marketing, with their Oceans 11 style “heist” of the NBA cup in a casino. To be fair, the alternative would’ve been giving one team a huge advantage by having the decisive game on their home floor. That’s something the NBA does all the time, but given this particular format, it’s not totally clear how home court would even be decided. The knockout stage was seeded, but should something as random as point differential during a four-game group stage determine what team gets home court? We’ll see. However the NBA decides to amend the current format, they need to shelf the idea of playing the final on a neutral court until they build up some fan interest in the competition. Or else they’ll be better served with airing a plain, old regular season game.