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Suns' thoughts on the NBA In-Season tournament and scenarios to clinch wild card spot

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
November 28, 2023
The Phoenix Suns gave their thoughts on the NBA In-Season Tournament, plus here are the scenarios for them to clinch a wild card spot

Tuesday marks the final day of group play games for the first NBA In-Season Tournament, and the Phoenix Suns are in great position to secure the Western Conference wild card spot.

Over the last few weeks, specially designated games on Tuesdays and Fridays have counted toward this In-Season Tournament, scheduled to begin next week. Sporting a 3-1 record and a +34 point differential in four group stage matchups, the Suns will more than likely snag the final spot on the Western Conference side of the bracket. That will almost certainly mean facing the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round.

The NBA’s attempt to inject extra meaning into the early stages of its winding regular season has been a strangely controversial topic, but make no mistake about it: Phoenix wants to get in and win the first ever NBA Cup.

“I ain’t gonna lie, at first I was like, ‘Eh,’ but I like it,” Josh Okogie said. “I hope we can get in there.”

Change is almost always met with resistance at the start. The reaction to the NBA’s play-in games felt similar, until the games began and fans immediately saw how much fun they could inject into the playoff format.

At their very worst, In-Season Tournament games have been elevated regular-season games dressed up in fancier wrapping. At their best, they’ve been more competitive outings, with slightly higher ratings, adding some extra spice to the portion of the sports calendar where most fans are still glued to football.

Before the games began, Kevin Durant sounded skeptical about how much the players were incentivized to care, calling it “regularly scheduled programming.” But in his mind, that’s because players already want to win every night. From what we’ve seen, the In-Season Tournament games have dialed up that competitive fire a bit, giving fans more to care about in the process.

“For the fans, it’s an opportunity to know that there’s more at stake throughout the regular season, ’cause fans only want to watch the playoffs and the series and the high-intense moments,” Durant explained. “So the NBA creating a high-intense moment in a regular season since a lot of fans were complaining about stuff like that years prior. So hopefully they enjoy it this year. I know the players are gonna come out and try to play as hard as they can every game and make for good product on the floor.”

That good product has been on display, despite a few recent blowouts skewing the averages. The NBA is known for being willing to experiment, and awarding $500,000 to each player (and head coach) on the team that wins it all adds enough stakes to promote competition without adding too much stakes that will affect the playoffs. It allows this tournament to stand alone and have a chance to build its own lore, independent of the main prize that awaits at the end of the season.

“It’s just something that’s different, man,” Devin Booker said. “I think it’s evolving the game, it’s growing the game. I don’t know the stat on it, but I feel like the games have been higher intensity, something to play for — maybe that half a million dollars everybody wants. But it’s been fun, I like it.”

The results started strong:

Since then, as outmatched teams with less to play for face superior opponents trying to boost their point differential, the numbers have leveled out. But the 52 In-Season Tournament group play games have still been slightly more competitive, with an 11.0-point margin of victory, compared to an 11.6-point margin of victory in normal regular-season games.

Coach Frank Vogel believes the In-Season Tournament has brought extra juice to what would otherwise be normal November games.

“I definitely feel like these games have had a higher stakes feel to them, playoff type of intensity,” Vogel said. “It’s been a lot of fun.”

Given that these are world-class competitors, the Suns have been keeping tabs on results around the league — including point differentials — to plot out what they need to do in order to qualify for the knockout round. It’s the reason Booker banked in a 3 late against the Memphis Grizzlies while up double figures, or why Eric Gordon drilled a 3 on the final play of a two-possession game in a loss to the Lakers.

Every single point counts.

“It grew on me,” Keita Bates-Diop said. “I actually kind of like it. You could feel the intensity was a little bit higher than a normal regular-season game. A little bit more on the line, so I’m actually really glad this was implemented.”

Two weeks ago, the league reported that ratings on ESPN have been up for In-Season Tournament games by 55 percent. That figure should only continue to rise as the actual knockout rounds begin.

“I’ve loved it, I’ve caught the games when I can, they’ve been entertaining,” Grayson Allen said. “I feel like there’s been a heightened level of competitiveness in our games too, and I feel like everyone’s kind of got Vegas in their mind and getting there and trying to win the NBA Cup. So I think it’s been a great thing, I’m glad they added it.”

There are still some things the NBA will need to tweak moving forward. The zany, colorful courts — despite Vogel and players like Booker and Bates-Diop insisting they look better in person than they do on television — need to be toned down a bit to avoid giving viewers headaches after staring at them on a screen for three hours.

Scheduling could be improved as well. Some teams have an advantage going into their final group play game, knowing exactly how many points they need to win by in order to advance. Scheduling all 30 teams to play on the final day of group play could be a way to avoid that problem, while also giving the NBA one certified day they could own in November. Maybe Black Friday, to prevent the NFL from further expanding its ownership over Thanksgiving weekend?

There’s also the question of how much winning the In-Season Tournament will actually mean to fans. Players will be happy about the cash incentives for making the quarterfinals, semifinals and championship round, but how elated will they be to win it all? Will the celebration feel like winning an All-Star Game, or will it have a heightened significance? And will casual fans care to tune in if their team doesn’t make it that far?

Grayson Allen and other players around the league may be watching, but fanbases whose teams are already out of the running may feel less inclined to remain invested. The hope is that the point differential aspect encourages channel-hopping for fans of the teams who are still alive for a spot in the knockout round, encouraging them to keep tabs on group play games that might impact their favorite squad.

That brings us to Tuesday night, the final slate of In-Season Tournament group play games, and what the Suns need to happen in order to qualify for that lone wild card spot.

clinching scenarios for Suns in NBA In-Season Tournament

First, the ground rules: There are six groups (three in each conference), and the winners of each group automatically qualify for the knockout round. The last two slots are filled by one wild card team per conference, which means pitting the second-best team of each Western Conference group against each other.

The first tiebreaker is record, followed by point differential. Then it’s total points scored in the group stage, followed by last year’s regular-season record, and finally, a random drawing if necessary.

The Lakers have already won Group A by going 4-0. The Suns are in second, with a 3-1 record and a +34 point differential. That means that in order for Phoenix to miss out on the wild card spot, the second-best team in Group B or Group C has to finish 3-1 with a point differential higher than +34.

Looking at the standings, Group B no longer has any bearing on the Suns’ wild card hopes. If the Houston Rockets beat the Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday, they move to 3-1 and win Group B by virtue of their head-to-head tiebreaker with the New Orleans Pelicans. The Pelicans (3-1) would then finish second in the group, and their +33 point differential would fall just short of Phoenix’s +34.

If the Mavs beat the Rockets, Houston falls to 2-2, at which point the Pelicans win Group B and are the only team in that group with a 3-1 record.

Group C is one Suns fans will need to keep an eye on, but it would almost require a miracle to knock Phoenix out. Here’s how things stand in Group C entering Tuesday:

  1. Sacramento Kings: 3-0 record, +29 point differential
  2. Minnesota Timberwolves: 2-1 record, -3 point differential
  3. Golden State Warriors: 2-1 record, +5 point differential

These are the only three teams that have a chance. For starters, if the Timberwolves lose to the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Suns clinch their wild card spot no matter what.

If the Kings beat the Warriors, they win the group with a 4-0 record. At that point, only the Wolves can match the Suns’ 3-1 mark by beating the Thunder, but because of their -3 point differential, they’d have to beat OKC by 38 points to overtake Phoenix. If the Wolves won by exactly 37 points, they’d tie the Suns’ point differential, at which point they’d also need to score 149 points or more to surpass Phoenix’s point total in group play (the next tiebreaker). Anything less, and the Suns are safe.

So basically, if Timberwolves lose, or if the Kings win and the Timberwolves win by 36 points or less, the Suns clinch the final wild card spot.

Let’s say the Timberwolves somehow win by 38, but the Warriors beat the Kings. That would give Group C three teams with a 3-1 record. However, if Sacramento loses, their current +29 point differential would obviously fall short of the Suns’ +34 mark, so they’d be out. The Wolves would clear that bar, but the Warriors (+5) would still need to win by 30 points or more to surpass Phoenix’s point differential.

If the Dubs beat Sacramento by exactly 29 points, they would tie the Suns’ point differential, so they would also need to score 121 points or more in that game to beat Phoenix’s total points scored in group play. Anything less and they’d fall short.

So even if the Timberwolves somehow beat OKC by 38-plus, the Warriors either have to win by 30-plus, or win by exactly 29 points while putting up at least 121 points on Sacramento. Bearing that in mind, the Suns’ odds of clinching have to be somewhere in the 95-99 percent range, since it’d take two routs by 30-plus to knock them out of the wild card spot.

More than likely, Phoenix should be preparing for a first-round rematch against the Lakers…only this time, with a healthy Devin Booker in the lineup.

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