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An Unprecedented Stage Inspires Serious Soul-Searching

By SAM AMICK Sam Amick is a senior N.B.A. writer for The Athletic.

LAS VEGAS — What is it with the Los Angeles Lakers and unconventional N.B.A. championships?

First, they win the 2020 N.B.A. bubble title, and now they’re champions of the new in-season tournament, which was a smashing success. Let the record show that I’ve always defended the value of their bubble title, and believe that the mental focus it took to achieve that Larry O’Brien Trophy might have superseded what it takes to win a championship in a normal season.

Still, it’s quite the oddity that this legacy franchise happened to earn these two crowns. LeBron James & Co. deserve all the flowers that are coming their way after downing the Indiana Pacers, 123-109, to win the firstever N.B.A. Cup.

Regardless of who won this title, there’s a macro takeaway from the inaugural event: For better or worse, this unprecedented stage sure seems to inspire some serious soul-searching.

For example, the Lakers will now resume the rest of their regular season with the knowledge that their approach has real and elite potential. Anthony Davis, whose 41-point, 20-rebound outing sparked memories of his dominant Florida bubble run, reminded the masses that he can be that guy on a major stage.

James, who is smacking Father Time in the mouth daily, had 24 points, 11 rebounds and 4 assists en route to earning most valuable player honors. Cam Reddish continued his defensiveminded renaissance. Austin Reaves balled out off the bench. This looked like a team that will matter when May rolls around. But that same dynamic exists with several other teams too, and the conclusions being reached aren’t always quite so rosy.

Here’s a look at a few of the other takeaways from the Vegas portion of this in-season tourney:

What’s wrong with Zion?

By the time New Orleans was embarrassed by the Lakers in a 133-89 semifinal blowout, no one cared that the Pelicans’ Zion Williamson had been playing well in recent weeks. On this historic stage, in a game that qualified as the most significant of his injury-riddled, five-year N.B.A. career, he laid the kind of egg that won’t soon be forgotten.

It wasn’t about his line, per se, though 13 points and 2 rebounds in 25 minutes said plenty about his outing. As TNT’s Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley highlighted after the game, it was more about the way he looked. Physically. Mentally. All of the above.

To Williamson’s credit, he owned it all in his media session afterward. He used the word “aggressive” nine times while admitting that he had been far too passive. He described himself as “too laid back” and highlighted his porous defense and overall effort.

But none of that changes the fact that he has raised the alarm bells, yet again, regarding the state of his stagnant game and the bigger picture question of what his N.B.A. future might hold. The Pelicans didn’t give the former No. 1 pick a five-year, $231 million in the summer of 2022 with visions of him playing like this. The scrutiny on him will remain until he looks like the kind of franchise talent that so many projected him to be.

The Pelicans (12-11) resume their season at league-leading Minnesota (17-4) on Monday night.

The Bucks have issues

If all you did was look at the standings, you’d think the Milwaukee Bucks were in a good place. Even with a 128-119 loss to the Pacers in the semifinals, Milwaukee (15-7) is tied for second in the Eastern Conference and third leaguewide. That’s not exactly cause for crisis mode, right? Well . . .

Amid all this massive change, from the off-season choice to replace Coach Mike Budenholzer with first-year Coach Adrian Griffin to the blockbuster trade for Damian Lillard that cost them a two-way terror in Jrue Holiday, there had been signs of growing pains all season long. The most notable change has been the Bucks’ drastic decline on the defensive end (fourth in defensive rating last season to 22nd as of Sunday).

The Bucks’ internal concern seemed to surface after the Pacers game when Giannis Antetokounmpo’s candid news conference raised some eyebrows in the room with his level of frustration.

But in terms of the intriguing impact that comes with the inseason tournament, it’s fair to wonder if the Bucks would have had this sort of reaction if, say, they lost to Indiana in Game No. 22 as part of the normal regularseason format. It’s highly doubtful, from this vantage point. A spotlight like this one tends to add joy for the victors and pain for those teams that fall. For the latter groups, a more critical self-analysis ensues from there.

The Haliburton show

Of all the things I never expected to be doing while covering the in-season tournament in Vegas, writing about Haliburton on consecutive days — and from multiple angles — was not on the old bingo card. But that was the beauty of what the Indiana Pacers’ point guard did in this tournament, as he consistently dazzled in the kind of way that made him impossible to ignore. That aspect of this tournament experience should have staying power, giving players and teams that aren’t typically competing on center stage a chance to show out for the masses.

Haliburton wasn’t nearly as dominant in the finale with the Lakers’ size and length (courtesy of Jarred Vanderbilt and Reddish) causing him fits. He finished with 20 points and 11 assists, which are below his season averages of 26.9 points and his league-leading 12.1 assists.

But there was a persistence to his game that was impressive, as he found ways to make an impact despite the Lakers’ defense that was so dominant. With 6 minutes 43 seconds left in the game, the Pacers were down by only 4 points, before the Lakers surged late.

The Pacers won’t have much time to dwell on the loss, as they play at Detroit on Monday night.

“We’ve done some great things to get here, competed against some good teams and battled, and you can’t let that happen for no reason,” Haliburton said afterward. “If you allow this loss to roll over, and we’ve got a fourgame road trip coming up here, you’ve got to take care of business and handle it the right way and celebrate the successes of it. But at the end of the day, it’s just like the regular season. It’s Game 22, 23. Got to move on.”

Let the tourney tweaks begin

When Commissioner Adam Silver gave his pregame news conference, he joked that he was growing tired of the word “tweaks” concerning the in

season tournament. Then within minutes of making that declaration, Silver couldn’t help but pontificate about some of the changes that will inevitably be coming in the tournament.

Yet, beyond the discussion about the point differential tiebreaker and the number of games, here’s one particular topic of focus in league circles: The future location of the tournament.

According to a person in the league familiar with the arrangement, the N.B.A.’s contract with Las Vegas for the tournament was for just one year. So while there’s all sorts of momentum in this market, and the relevant reality that the league is seriously considering the prospect of expanding in Vegas in the years to come, there is no business commitment to Sin City in 2024.

SPORTS

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2023-12-11T08:00:00.0000000Z

2023-12-11T08:00:00.0000000Z

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