The NBA's inaugural in-season tournament has reached the championship match, with the Indiana Pacers and the Los Angeles Lakers vying for the NBA Cup and the winning team's players walking away with $500,000 each in prize money.
After all 30 teams were split into six groups and played four group stage games across November, eight qualified for the quarterfinals with four teams reaching the semifinals at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
The championship game will be played on Saturday (watch on ABC, 8:30 p.m. ET) in Las Vegas.
So what, exactly, is the NBA Cup? How has the tournament worked? Why is it happening? What is the NBA hoping to get out of it?
Lakers, Pacers advance to NBA Cup final in Las Vegas
The Lakers and Pacers will play for the NBA Cup after both advanced Thursday.
Saturday's title game will be a clash between one of the league's most storied franchises, led by superstar LeBron James, against an upstart Pacers squad trying to capture more national attention.
Indiana booked its spot with the win over the Milwaukee Bucks at T-Mobile Arena thanks to a stellar performance from Tyrese Haliburton, who finished with 27 points and 15 assists. The third-year guard has been one of the breakout stars during the tournament in which the Pacers are averaging nearly 133 points per game.
"We're playing the right way and we're shocking the world right now, we're going to continue to do that," Haliburton said. "And as long as we play the right way, we know we're going to be in every basketball game."
"We've got to close it out in the fourth quarter, which is something we've done very well, we just couldn't pull it off tonight," Milwaukee coach Adrian Griffin said.
In contrast to that game, the Lakers had little trouble against the Pelicans. In front of a vocal pro-Lakers crowd, James dazzled in a 30-point effort that included three straight 3-pointers in the second quarter.
"We've got to finish our breakfast on Saturday," James said. "That's the most important thing."
"I think I was too laid-back tonight and I just can't do that. And defensively I got to be better," Williamson said.
The Lakers and Pacers had gone undefeated in tournament play, which has included four group stage games and two knockout round victories in their respective runs to the final. Unlike the other tournament games, Saturday's championship will not count in the regular-season standings. -- ESPN staff
Championship (T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas)
Top tournament news
• LeBron dominates Pelicans, lifts Lakers into final
• Giannis urges Bucks to 'be better' after tourney loss
• Pacers advance to final after Haliburton's big night
• Herring: The top 25 players in the in-season tournament semifinals
• High roller: Pacers-Bucks has highest betting total on any game since '91
• Source: No black city-edition uniforms for Lakers due to court's visual contrast
• Lakers hold off Suns to reach semifinals amid controversial timeout call
• 'Our best offensive game': Giannis, Dame shine in Bucks' big win over Knicks
• NBA teams can scout prospects at Vegas showcase during tourney weekend
• Pelicans lean on 'trust' and healthy roster to eliminate Kings
• Haliburton posts 1st triple-double, Pacers top Celtics to reach semis
• ESPN Insiders: Dream final? MVP? The in-season tourney's big questions
• NBA in-season tournament quarterfinal matchups set
• Fantasy: Top streamers to target during final week of in-season tournament
• Kings come back to stun Warriors, advance in tournament
• 'It was a little weird': Players irked by tourney's point-differential rule
• Heat F Jimmy Butler sits out loss vs. Bucks with ankle injury
• Hornets guard LaMelo Ball out weeks due to ankle sprain
• Bontemps: Tournament provides added incentive for Haliburton, Pacers
• 309 total points! Pacers clinch first-ever QF spot in high scoring win over Hawks
• LeBron James passes 39,000-point mark as Lakers advance to knockouts
• Green, Thompson, McDaniels ejected in Wolves-Warriors fight
• Myles Turner's dunk kicks off first NBA in-season tournament
• Sources: Coaches to get paid for advancing in NBA in-season tournament
• Lowe: How the bold new NBA in-season tournament courts came to fruition
• NBA goes Hollywood to promote in-season tournament
FAQ (by Tim Bontemps)
Why is this happening?
NBA commissioner Adam Silver has wanted to implement it for years, for a variety of reasons. Much like the play-in games, though, it took a long time for him to convince everyone involved to give it a shot.
The first hope, obviously, is that it generates revenue. The NBA believes the in-season tournament can become a significant moneymaking franchise over time because of the ability to sell its television rights -- as it did with the WNBA's version of the event.
The other hope is to draw more eyeballs to the league. The stretch of time the tournament is set within -- from the start of November through the first week of December -- might be the most irrelevant part of the NBA schedule.
It's after the initial rush of the season starting, and alongside the college football and NFL regular seasons. If this tournament can bring more attention to the sport during its least relevant time of the year, it will be seen as a victory.
What is the format?
Silver has long been fascinated with European soccer, and the basis for the NBA's in-season tournament lies in the cup tournaments across Europe. In those leagues, there is a regular-season championship, determined by the team with the most points over the full year, and then a separate tournament (or, in some leagues, multiple tournaments) that runs concurrently with the league season.
Unlike European soccer tournaments, though, which all are played outside of the league schedule, the NBA Cup is built into the NBA's regular-season schedule. The 30 teams were split up into six five-team groups.
The four group stage games will be played on seven November dates: four Fridays (Nov. 3, 10, 17 and 24) and three Tuesdays (Nov. 14, 21 and 28).
The quarterfinals will be played Dec. 4 and 5 at the higher-seeded team, and the semifinals and championship game will be Dec. 7 and 9 in Las Vegas.
How will this impact the regular-season schedule and standings?
Typically, the NBA sends out a full 82-game schedule in mid-August. This year, though, the league only sent 80 games, with a gap in the schedule from Dec. 3-10. Each team's final two regular-season games will be determined by how the in-season tournament plays out.
The 22 teams that fail to qualify for the knockout rounds of the in-season tournament will have their final two games scheduled -- one at home and one on the road -- on Dec. 6 and 8 against other teams eliminated in the group stage.
The East teams that lose in the quarterfinals and the West teams that lose in the quarterfinals will play each other on Dec. 7. The teams that lose in the semifinals in Las Vegas will have played their full allotment of 82 games, while the teams that reach the championship game will actually wind up playing 83 games -- with the championship game not counting toward the regular-season standings.
Why does the NBA Cup include regular-season games?
Before its launch, one of the biggest questions surrounding the in-season tournament was why any team would be incentivized to compete in it. By making it part of the regular-season schedule, and making every game count toward the regular season -- very important from a playoff tiebreaker standpoint -- the NBA created a situation in which it is in teams' interest to win these games.
If this had been set up like the cup tournaments in European soccer, there would've been nothing stopping NBA teams from opting out literally or figuratively, sitting all of their top players and getting extra rest time. Under this system, though, they'll have every incentive to play and win.
What teams make up the groups?
To create the groups -- which were separated by conferences -- the NBA put all 15 teams in each conference into five pots, separated by their finish in last season's standings. So: Pot 1 included the teams that finished 1-3 in regular-season record, teams 4-6 went into Pot 2, teams 7-9 in Pot 3, teams 10-12 in Pot 4 and teams 13-15 in Pot 5.
As a result, the following groups were drawn:
What do players get for winning?
The players on the winning team will each get $500,000, while the runners-up will get $200,000. The losing players of the semifinals will each get $100,000, and the losing players of the quarterfinals will each get $50,000.
Will anyone earn individual honors for their play in NBA Cup games?
There will be a Most Valuable Player award for the in-season tournament, as well as an all-tournament team.
Will this have any impact on the playoffs?
Not beyond the games being regular-season games that count in the standings. While there was some debate among league insiders about guaranteeing a playoff berth as a reward for winning the tournament, ultimately that idea -- or any other to further incentivize teams -- was not enacted. The only playoff impact will come from the wins and losses accrued throughout the tournament.
Why is it called the NBA Cup?
Because it's easy enough to change. In the short term, the NBA has said it went with the most basic of titles for both the tournament and its trophy -- the "in-season tournament" and "NBA Cup" -- as a way to introduce the concept to fans. However, using such bland, nondescript names has another clear advantage: When the league looks to sell the naming rights to both, it'll be an easier transition from an unremarkable name than one connected with a specific individual (such as the late David Stern, one possibility that had been floated before the tournament was officially unveiled).
In-season tournament knockout round scores and schedule
*All times are ET
Dec. 4 | Pacers 122, Celtics 112
Dec. 4 | Pelicans 127, Kings 117
Dec. 5 | Bucks 146, Knicks 122
Dec. 5 | Lakers 106, Suns 103
Semifinals (at T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas)
Dec. 7 | Pacers 128, Bucks 119
Dec. 7 | Lakers 133, Pelicans 89
Championship (at T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas)
In-season tournament group stage scores