NBA in-season tournament semis preview: Keys to Pacers-Bucks and Pels-Lakers

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The inaugural NBA in-season tournament has finally made its way to Las Vegas for the semifinals after over a month of competitive games and eye-catching courts.

Only the Indiana Pacers and Milwaukee Bucks remain on the Eastern side of the bracket, while the Los Angeles Lakers and New Orleans Pelicans have advanced from the West. The teams will meet on Thursday (5 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App) for the chance to move on to Saturday’s championship game (8 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN App) and a $500K payday for each player on the winning roster.

Our ESPN NBA Insiders break down how each of the four teams got here, what they need to do to survive the semifinals and what game plans they could implement to ensure a trip to the championship game.

From LeBron James‘ minutes to the Bucks’ interior defense and Zion Williamson‘s role as a small-ball center, we’ve got you covered heading into the semifinal matchups.

Note: Odds courtesy of ESPN BET and ESPN Basketball Power Index (BPI).

EAST: PACERS VS. BUCKS

  • Thursday, 5 p.m. ET | ESPN

  • Odds: Milwaukee (-4.5)

  • BPI: Milwaukee (59.9% to advance)


How the Pacers reached the semis

Thanks in part to a pair of memorable road victories — a win in Philadelphia over the 76ers, who were favored to win the group, and a ridiculous offensive showing in Atlanta against the Hawks — Indiana swept its four group stage games and advanced to the in-season tournament quarterfinals.

Indiana found itself hosting the Boston Celtics Monday in a game that, as point guard Tyrese Haliburton succinctly put it after the game, “Nobody expected us to win.”

Haliburton, after a slow first half, used an inhaler at halftime to help with the upper respiratory infection he was playing through and morphed into a different player after the break, scoring or assisting on 24 of the Pacers’ first 27 points. With 1:33 left in the fourth, Haliburton kicked off a 9-0 run with a 4-point play, a push that sent the Pacers and the crowd inside Gainbridge Fieldhouse into euphoric celebrations — and sent Indiana to Las Vegas. — Tim Bontemps

Can Indiana piece together enough stops?

As Haliburton sat at the podium after Indiana’s quarterfinal win, he jumped on a question discussing the effectiveness of the team’s defense.

While Indiana’s league-leading offense is incandescent, its 28th-ranked defense routinely makes its opponents look just as potent. The Pacers showed some focus down the stretch, getting some stops against Boston. But in order to beat a Milwaukee team that can go toe-to-toe with Indiana’s offense, it’s going to be essential for Indiana to play with that same defensive intensity and focus it showed throughout group play. — Bontemps

Winning formula: Let it fly from downtown

Giannis Antetokounmpo’s heroics weren’t enough to beat Indiana in the first meeting, in part because the Pacers made 20 of their 48 3-point attempts — the most made and attempted against Milwaukee this season. As the underdog, Indiana would be wise to hunt 3s whenever possible in the semifinals, creating some risk of a blowout loss in exchange for a greater likelihood of pulling the upset. With three regulars hitting at least 40% of their 3s (Haliburton, Buddy Hield and Aaron Nesmith), the Pacers have the talent to make the Bucks pay beyond the arc.

The interesting question is whether they should also be aggressive in interrupting Milwaukee’s shooters. That might pose even more risk after the Bucks made 23 3-pointers against the Knicks in the IST quarterfinals. But point differential stopped mattering when we reached the knockout rounds, and packing the paint could be Indiana’s best hope of stopping Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee offense. — Kevin Pelton


How the Bucks reached the semis

Milwaukee, like Indiana, swept the group stage, first edging the Knicks at home to open play before beating the Washington Wizards and Charlotte Hornets. With Jimmy Butler watching in street clothes on Nov. 28, it took all 48 minutes for the Bucks to escape South Beach with a victory over the Miami Heat, which ensured Milwaukee would be hosting the Knicks in the quarterfinal rematch.

Milwaukee proceeded to have one of the greatest shooting performances in NBA history, going 23-for-38 from 3-point range against the Knicks — making the Bucks just the fourth team to hit at least 60% of their 3s while making at least 23. It was the best performance of the season so far for the Bucks, and a reminder of just how overwhelming this team’s offensive attack can be when clicking. — Bontemps

Which version of Milwaukee will show up?

The question with the Bucks is very simple: Can they play a full, consistent 48 minutes three times in a row?

Milwaukee’s play has often seesawed within games. That’s why the Bucks have been in so many close games — 12 of their games this season have reached clutch time, defined as the score being within five points in the final five minutes or overtime — and why Damian Lillard has been, by far, the league’s best clutch performer this season.

Tuesday’s game against New York, however, was Milwaukee’s best performance of the season — a dominant showing against a strong opponent that saw the Bucks completely overwhelm the opposition with its varied offensive attack. There’s no doubt Milwaukee is capable of doing the same against an Indiana team near the bottom of the league in defense. — Bontemps

Winning formula: Own the paint

Despite Myles Turner’s rim protection, the Pacers’ 28th-ranked defense has been particularly vulnerable at the basket. The 62.6 points per game Indiana is allowing in the paint are 3.7 more than any other team in the league. The Pacers are also last in terms of free throws surrendered per field goal attempt, which spells opportunity for Antetokounmpo to feast in the paint.

With Lillard sidelined and Khris Middleton playing limited minutes in the first meeting between these teams on Nov. 9, Antetokounmpo went off for a season-high 54 points on 19-of-25 shooting — including 16 free throws. The Bucks have been at their best when attacking the basket. They’re 9-1 this season when attempting 27 free throws or more and 6-5 in their other 11 games. If Antetokounmpo can get Indiana into the bonus, Lillard can capitalize with his 92% accuracy from the charity stripe. — Pelton

WEST: PELICANS VS. LAKERS

  • Thursday, 9 p.m. ET | TNT

  • Odds: Los Angeles (-1.5)

  • BPI: New Orleans (59.3% to advance)


How the Pelicans reached the semis

The Pelicans’ run to Vegas has been part of a turnaround following a players-only meeting called when New Orleans was mired in a five-game losing streak. The Pelicans immediately responded with group play victories over the Dallas Mavericks and Denver Nuggets in their next two games and have gone 8-4 overall since that mid-November meeting.

Forward Brandon Ingram has starred during tournament play, averaging 27.4 points, 6.0 rebounds and 6.2 assists as the Pelicans went 3-1 in group play and punched their tickets to Vegas with a quarterfinal road win over the Sacramento Kings.

New Orleans has also gotten progressively healthier over the course of the tournament. Defensive stopper Herb Jones has wreaked havoc while providing some scoring punch (16.0 PPG in IST) since missing the last few games of the losing streak — including a group play loss to the Rockets — with a leg injury. Guard CJ McCollum (lung) and forward Trey Murphy III (knee) missed all of group play but were major contributors in the quarterfinals, combining for 33 points and eight assists. Guard Jose Alvarado, who was limited to one game in group play by an ankle injury, contributed nine points and his typical pesky defense off the bench against the Kings. — Tim MacMahon

Can Zion lead this run?

A series of injuries has disrupted the former No. 1 pick’s ascent to superstardom and prevented Zion Williamson from playing in high-stakes situations. He has been sidelined for a playoff series and play-in games the past two seasons, so the in-season tournament knockout games are the most meaningful of his NBA career so far.

Williamson didn’t stand out in the Pelicans’ quarterfinal victory in Sacramento. He finished with 10 points on 5-of-8 shooting with 6 rebounds, 6 assists and 3 steals, watching New Orleans’ key crunch-time run from the bench. The Pelicans will probably need much more from Williamson to earn the $500,000-per-player grand prize in Vegas.

Williamson, who was one of the most hyped draft prospects in decades, got plenty of experience in elimination games during his lone season at Duke in 2018-19. He averaged 26.4 points and 9.1 rebounds in ACC and NCAA tournament games. The Blue Devils won their conference tournament but were upset in the Elite Eight of March Madness. — MacMahon

Winning formula: Go small

During Monday’s quarterfinal win over the Kings, New Orleans was outscored by eight points with centers Jonas Valanciunas and Cody Zeller on the court. The difference in the game was the Pelicans’ plus-15 margin with Williamson as the nominal center in smaller lineups against Sacramento’s second unit. New Orleans should have the ability to use center Zion against the Lakers when Anthony Davis is off the court, meaning a matchup against former Pelicans teammate Jaxson Hayes.

The truly bold strategy for Pelicans coach Willie Green would be going small against AD, forcing Williamson to defend him but giving New Orleans better floor spacing by putting another elite shooter (Trey Murphy III) on the court. I wouldn’t necessarily plan on going to Zion at the 5 as a first option, but if the Pelicans fall behind it could be a way to speed up the game and increase their 3-point opportunities as part of a comeback effort. — Pelton


How the Lakers reached the semis

The last step in the Lakers’ journey to Vegas featured some controversy against the Suns, thanks to the officials granting LeBron James a timeout when it appeared that the ball was loose with 7.1 seconds left in the game. All in all, however, the Lakers have been as dominant as any team during in-season tourney action.

The Lakers cruised through group play, sweeping their four games by an average margin of 18.5 points. The plus-74 point differential was by far the best in the league.

“Y’all heard there’s $500,000 on the line, so we’re going for that,” James told ESPN’s Lisa Salters during his walk-off interview after leading the Lakers to a comeback win over the Suns in their in-season tournament opener.

James has made almost $500 million in career salary and even more than that off the court, but he certainly has performed like a man with a little extra motivation. The 38-year-old has averaged 26.2 points, 8.0 rebounds, 8.2 assists and 1.8 steals per game during tournament play.

The Lakers needed a spectacular James performance to avoid elimination at the hands of the Suns in the quarterfinals. He had 31 points, 8 rebounds, 11 assists and 5 steals, becoming the oldest player ever to record at least 30 points, 10 assists and 5 steals in an NBA game, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

James played the entire fourth quarter and carried the Lakers down the stretch, scoring or assisting on 19 of their 23 points in the frame — and calling that critical, controversial timeout. — MacMahon

Will the dominant version of AD make the trip?

The Lakers need Anthony Davis to play at All-NBA levels to be a title contender, whether it’s in the in-season tournament or for the NBA title in June. His offensive production has been a pretty strong indicator of the Lakers’ success this season. He has averaged 25.6 points on 55% shooting in 13 wins, compared to 18.9 points on 50% shooting in eight losses.

Perhaps it’s a good sign for L.A. that the Lakers will face the Pelicans in the semifinals. Davis has fared quite well against his former team since forcing his way out of New Orleans in 2019. Davis has averaged 27.9 points in 10 career meetings with the Pelicans. That’s his third-highest scoring average against any opponent. The Lakers are 8-2 in those games. — MacMahon

Winning formula: Lean on LeBron and AD

Hey, remember when LeBron was on a minutes limit and played just 29 on opening night? That was quickly forgotten, as the Lakers remain reliant on their soon-to-be 39-year-old star. Coach Darvin Ham used both James and Davis in Tuesday’s quarterfinal win over the Phoenix Suns like it was a playoff game; James’ 40 minutes were his most in regulation this season, while Davis’ 39 minutes ranked third by that measure. With Austin Reaves the only other Lakers player to score double figures, the Lakers needed every second they got from their stars.

By virtue of playing on the second night of the quarterfinals, the Lakers will have less rest than New Orleans, but the travel from Los Angeles to Las Vegas will be easy, and they could be staring at an extended break (through next Tuesday) if they lose. The Lakers’ stars have been vocal in their support for earning their lower-paid teammates a nice bonus via the tournament — their minutes totals Tuesday reflected that desire. — Pelton

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