Monday, February 26, 2024

NBA In-Season Tournament predictions: Expert picks for bracket with Celtics, Lakers, more eyeing championship

The inaugural NBA In-Season Tournament is moving right along, and with group stage over we look ahead to the knockout rounds with eight teams still alive for a chance to win the NBA Cup. The knockout stage starts Monday night, and here’s the bracket. Just to quickly recap how we got to this point, six of the eight teams that advanced got here after winning their group by either having the best record, or having the higher point differential, which is why the Boston Celtics (+27) advanced over the Orlando Magic (+22) and Brooklyn Nets (+20). The other two teams — The Phoenix Suns and the New York Knicks — were given wild-card spots after finishing with the highest point differential out of remaining teams.

The eight teams that are left are now placed into a bracket based on how they finished, where it’ll be a single-elimination tournament, culminating with the semifinals and championship game in Las Vegas on Saturday. While it may seem logical to pick the two teams that finished first in each conference — the Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks — to meet in the championship game on Dec. 9, if this in-season tournament has taught us anything it’s that the unexpected is most likely to happen.

Ahead of the knockout round tipping off on Tuesday, here is who the CBS Sports staff thinks will make it to the semifinals, as well as which team will be crowned the first ever In-Season Tournament champion.

Pacers vs. Celtics

Kings vs. Pelicans

Bucks vs. Knicks

Lakers vs. Suns

Championship game

Botkin: No duo is playing better than Devin Booker and Kevin Durant right now, but the Celtics are too potent offensively and can at least make Booker’s life very difficult with Jrue Holiday and they have multiple bodies to throw at Durant, as they did when he was with the Nets. Boston has been the best team all season and is clearly invested in winning this thing. Give me the Celtics.

Herbert: This tournament was designed to be unpredictable, yet here I am, making predictions. It would go against the spirit of the whole thing to simply pick the best team, so I’m going with the Pacers. They’re blazing fast, historically efficient and, in a win-or-go-home situation, sort of terrifying. I like the idea of Tyrese Haliburton going to Vegas and destroying everybody standing between him and the Cup. 

Maloney: The Celtics feigned indifference to the In-Season Tournament leading up to their final group stage game, which they needed to win by 23 points to have a chance of advancing. Then they came out and destroyed the Chicago Bulls, running the Hack-A-Drummond with a 30-point lead in the fourth quarter in the process. When Billy Donovan was complaining about the tactics in his postgame press conference, you could hear the Celtics celebrating their qualification all the way from the locker room. It’s clear they want this trophy, and they’ve been the best team in the league this season. 

Quinn: The Celtics are simply the best team not just in the tournament field, but the NBA as a whole, with the tools to stifle more types of teams than any of their opponents. In an elimination setting, I want the team that can beat you as many ways as possible, and Boston, with its incredible top six, is that team

Reiter: Sacramento rides the momentum of that gripping comeback-win against the Warriors from the final night of group play right into the Final in Vegas. But that’s where the magic ends. The Boston Celtics are too good, too deep, too hungry in general and — see the hack-an-Andre-Drummond angst — too committed to actually winning this thing in particular. Sacramento is a team on the rise, but Boston is already at the top of the NBA mountain. The game’s best team wins the inaugural NBA Cup.

Tyree: The Bucks lack the defense while the Knicks lack the consistent offense required to knock out the Celtics, who are easily the most well-rounded squad here. The Kings have the health and youth to get through the West, but I can’t see them keeping up with all Boston’s weapons in the end.

Ward-Henninger: If the In-Season Tournament was made for any team, it’s the New York Knicks — not good enough to seriously compete for a championship, but perfectly capable of beating a top team on any given night. The Bucks have experienced defensive issues all season, so Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle should be able to help the Knicks win a likely high-scoring affair in Milwaukee. Then it’s (probably) a matter of taking down the Celtics, whom they’ve lost to twice already this season but also beat three straight times last year. You already know Tom Thibodeau is going to play his guys 40-plus minutes, while the title-contending Celtics have much more incentive to think of the marathon instead of the sprint. In a championship matchup against the Pelicans, the Knicks’ top-five defense should be able to keep Zion Williamson and Co. in check. More than anything, I just trust Brunson in a win-or-go-home situation.

Wimbish: Of the teams that advanced to the knockout stage, only one of them ranks in the top 10 on offense and defense this season: the Celtics. We all know the potency that Boston’s offense can possess with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown leading the way, but it’s that No. 2-ranked defense anchored by Jrue Holiday that is not only going to make a difference for the in-season tournament, but for a deep postseason run later on.

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